What Teaching Taught Me
I recently finished a three-year teaching contract as a lecturer for a first-year university business course. I took some time to reflect on the lessons will stay with me from this incredible experience.
If I reflect on the most influential role models and mentors in my life, immediately following my family are a set of teachers who helped craft who I am today. I like to think that my teaching style is a blend of the great teachers of my past, as I incorporated my favorite parts of how they conducted a classroom into my own. I don’t support plagiarism, but there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of inspiration.
A priority for all teachers is to help unlock the potential of each individual student. There are countless teaching styles that have shown promise in reaching this goal, but my style came to resemble one promoted by one of my favourite authors, Angela Duckworth. Duckworth argues that the most effective teachers, parents, and mentors balance high demands with ceaseless support.
“It’s a common misunderstanding to think about ‘tough love’ as a carefully struck balance between affection and respect on the one hand, and firmly enforced expectations on the other. In actuality, there’s no reason you can’t do both.”
I strove to be the kind of teacher that I wanted and needed in my first year of university. My transition to post-secondary learning, like most students’, was far from smooth. I still wanted to push my students outside of their comfort zone to maximize their growth and learning. At the same time, I wanted them to know that I would do all in my power to help them achieve success and would support them wherever possible.
LEARNING ABOUT MYSELF
I learned more about who I am as a person. It became evident early in this position that when you are in front of a classroom, you can’t pretend to be someone that you’re not. Authenticity is crucial, and students are immediately able to assess your true character.
With that, I learned that I was going to mess up. Constantly. I was going to make mistakes as an educator, and sometimes I would simply not know the answer. At the start I was terribly nervous that not knowing the correct answer in class would diminish my credibility. I quickly learned to admit when I couldn’t recall the correct information. An inability to answer students with “I don’t know” is what would actually diminish credibility.
The hardest problems to solve often weren’t about business problems. Some of my toughest days occurred when my students would look to me to help them out of a dark spot or with a difficult life choice. Most of the time I did not have a great answer since I hadn’t figured my own life out. I was always able to listen though. I hope that made some sort of impact, however small.
I thought that planning was everything in teaching. To an extent it certainly is. Having a structure meticulously planned for each lecture was a necessity when I began. I would sweat when my students would start directing the conversation “off script.” Over time I began to notice that these organic conversations were often the most insightful. I learned that when teaching you don’t want a script. You want ideas. Then you want the class to travel down any route they choose that leads them to those ideas. The students could teach themselves through conversation and debate far better than I ever could.
I always learned more when I was having fun while doing so. I wanted to make each class a unique experience, memorable beyond the content. I hoped that associating positive memories with the content would boost knowledge retention. Some classes about loan repayments or financial ratios were tougher to enliven, but even the energy from an extra cup of coffee would often do the trick.
I knew that I would be helping students grow, but I absolutely underestimated the amount of feedback that would allow me to build my skills alongside them. Feedback was constantly available from students, fellow faculty, and leadership. Sure, many comments were to give higher grades or less homework, but there were also so many opportunities for me to recognize my weaknesses. I would compile a list of the recurring themes from the feedback I received and would leave it on a note on my desk. Each term I would make it a priority to improve myself in those areas, thus improving the academic experience for the students as well.
LEARNING ABOUT OTHERS
I had many students pass through my classroom who were dead set on pursuing a future in business, consulting, or banking. I also had students who wanted to become musicians, designers, or astronauts. My job was to teach business tools, but my passion was for teaching the soft skills which would be integral to each student’s future regardless of their career path. Watching students grow their skills in decision-making, communication, and critical thinking was incredibly rewarding.
I was inspired by my students’ abilities to outline and reach their goals. One student introduced himself to me early in the year and asked me what grade I thought he could achieve if he really applied himself. I told him that with determination and commitment, he could achieve an 85% in the course. I was impressed when he told me that because of that his goal was to achieve a final grade of 86%. I was even more impressed when I calculated his final average at the end of the term. He had met and exceeded that goal.
My other favourite moments were when I could achieve what I call “the click.” A student would visit my office, having a tough time with a concept. I would work through the problem with them, but it would often not stick the first time. After wiping down the whiteboard, drawing new scenarios, and using new language….it finally clicks. The student’s body language immediately changes. They open up, and give a sigh saying “Of course! Why didn’t I see that before!” The click. Wow, that feels good.
At the same time, I learned that everyone has something going on in their lives. Regardless of how well others seem to have their lives together, everyone is facing their own personal challenges. I learned that understanding how each person is fighting their own battles is crucial to developing empathy and systems for support.
I learned that to build an inclusive environment I would need to understand my student’s differences while understanding my own privileges and point of view. Listening to student experiences, acknowledging differences, and considering what I deemed the “right” answer was a priority. I would need to constantly reflect on the language I used and the way I facilitated the class to move towards the goal of each student having an equal opportunity to learn and contribute. It is a process that I have begun but am certainly far from finishing.
I learned that there were going to be tough days. Some days I may have wanted to stay in bed, but the class would still be there waiting for me. That was enough to get me there each day. It was always worth it.
I learned that if you tell a date that you’re a “professor” at 21 they will likely think that you are catfishing. No way around that one.
I learned that as a teacher you are both an entrepreneur and part of an inseparable team. You are tasked with leading your class but doing so wouldn’t happen without a driven group of educators.
Finally, when students are put first, incredible things can happen.