27 March, 2014

On Teaching: Ten Lessons

Though I often forgot to think of myself as a teacher, I teach residents and medical students, usually in a clinical setting but also in small groups. I found these "lessons" to be very helpful and so I imagine anyone who teaches, in any setting, might also.
Teaching is not my greatest strength. It’s not that I am ineffective or that I don’t enjoy it, but that I am not a “natural” classroom teacher. There are semesters in which my student evaluations have been very good, but more typically they are average – which, at my institution, I take to be good. I know that I am highly successful when working with very small groups and, oddly, with very large groups. It’s with the medium size class – the size most frequently encountered at my institution – that I find the greatest challenge.

Nevertheless I enter every class believing (in no particular order):
  • That if not fully prepared, I have no right to expect my students to be prepared, and I should cancel the class before insulting my students by wasting their time. Too often have I overheard students say some professor wasted their time, and while it may have been due to something other than inadequate preparation, that remains offensive to me and inexcusable. I suspect in my very first years of teaching I didn’t fully appreciate this. 
  • That standards should be high (A is for excellent, C is for average) and that it’s OK to use all of the grades – as long as your expectations are communicated clearly and you grade fairly. I do tell my students that I want to help them succeed and that I would have no difficulty awarding them all A’s, but they have to earn them. It’s up to them to learn the material. To live up to that, I want to be on a first name basis with my students (I was better at this in my younger, non-administrative days), and my students know that they can call (or fax, send email, etc.) at any time and that I’ll be willing to help them with problems. Finally, my behavior communicates to my students that I view them as responsible adults, not children. 
  • That students should be required to think and to write clearly. I tell my students that – fair or not – they will be judged for the remainder of their lives on their ability to communicate, and I teach all of my classes in the writing-intensive format. Although that format is supposed to help students think, I have been unhappy with the outcome, and those components of my courses that are designed to deal with or assess critical analysis need strengthening. 
  • That intellectual honesty is the lifeblood of the academic endeavor. I believe cheating is failure, and students are told in my syllabi that “I hold rather strident opinions about cheating and plagiarism. Please be advised that there is a single sanction in my classroom for such actions - an automatic “F” for the course - whether it occurs on a major or minor assignment or on the first or last assignment of the semester” and that “It is your responsibility not to cheat. Some students seem to think of cheating as equivalent to jaywalking or speeding- ‘it's against the rules, but everybody does it, so it's no big deal.’ That view reveals a complete misunderstanding of academe. The currency of an academic setting is ideas, thoughts, and words. Any form of academic dishonesty is, therefore, grand larceny - the equivalent of stealing not just a few dollars, but all of a person’s money and property. Cheating, data fabrication, and plagiarism are the triumvirate of crimes in the academic and scientific worlds.” My thinking about this has been unchanged since I was a student. 
  • That no question can be ignored. I do everything I can to create an environment where students are comfortable asking and responding to questions. I never treat a student question as unimportant or too obvious to answer (even if it seems that way to me). I take their questions as evidence that they are engaged in the lecture. In addition, their questions can help me learn, and I’m there to learn too. If I don’t know the answer to a question, I admit it and promise to learn and return next time with one. 
  • That attendance should be taken – if only for the message it conveys about how you rate the importance of what you’re doing in the classroom. As the years have passed, I have felt increasingly passionate about this – at least for my students. 
  • That if I’m not happy, my students won’t be. If I act like I don’t want to be there, why would my students want to be there? Attitudes should be left in the office or at home. Also, I use humor in my classes; if a class ends without a good chuckle at some point, it really bothers me; again, I see it as evidence of their engagement and a measure of their comfort in the learning environment I’m trying to create. 
  • That the lecture should supplement the text and vice versa. They shouldn’t mirror each other. I have never lectured from the textbook and never will; if I do, the students don’t need me. 
  • That rules are made to be broken. It’s OK to treat people as individuals – as long as all are treated as individuals. (It’s also the way I treated faculty – which, at another level, was a form of teaching.) 
  • That knowledge without passion is like kissing your grandmother. If professors can’t model passion for the subjects they’ve spent their lives studying, they’re in the wrong “profess”ion. Where does the job title come from? - you can’t claim to profess if you don’t share your passion.