Monday, January 12, 2015

Animal House? Not Quite: What Teaching College Students Teaches Me

I have to go to class?

Back at it this week! Rockhurst University classes start today. Every semester, I look forward to getting back in the swing of things; partly because I am a creature of habit who enjoys a daily routine, but mostly because I get to meet new students in my courses. They all come with their own personalities, needs, attitudes, talents and spirits. This blog post is specifically about the undergrad college students I teach as two of the three courses I am teaching this semester are undergrad sections. Naturally, I have been reflecting more about this particular group and realize they have taught me quite a bit over the last seven years.

They motivate me to be a better teacher: First and foremost, this is one of my goals as a life long educator, to continuously become better. Each generation of students bring their own uniqueness and eccentric outlooks on life and learning. As a college professor, in my opinion, nothing is more humbling then your course evaluations. This is the point in the semester, right before finals, when your students can anonymously write and critique all the areas about you as a professor. There are multiple choice questions which cover questions asking how rigorous the class was, were the readings tied to the objectives, did the instructor assess you fairly then onto open ended questions about your organization, delivery of content and overall performance...just to name a few. Over the semesters, I have been appreciative and work hard to earn high ratings, but there are always students who blatantly see the areas I need to improve on, and they are as right as they feel. Who am I to judge what they say? I try hard to think about their written feedback and figure out how I can improve the course and my teaching. That's my job.

I have to be in tune with their emotions and thoughts: They are adults, but just beginning. Sometimes they come to class, tired, overwhelmed, stressed and disconnected. Other times they bounce in with energy, motivated to tackle the world and happy to share their intellectual thoughts related to the course content. I learned quickly the importance of getting to know them through small and individual discussions, their reflections about their past experiences and where they see themselves as future teachers. I am fortunate to teach at a university where my class sizes typically range between 15-25 students, so I can get to know them and they can get to know me. This does impact the way I teach. If I notice that they are losing interest in a particular topic, I need to switch gears and teach it differently. If one or more of them are crabby, I leave them alone. If I can see others are excited to share and teach their peers, then I give them that opportunity. It's not always easy, but it's taught me to be more flexible and the incredible importance of having a pulse on each student.

If you want to play hard (whatever that means to you), you have to work harder.

It's not Toga, Toga: If you are a college grad, it seems typical that you remember the good times and the parties, but that is not the case.  Very rarely do I have a student fail my class. I like to think it is because I care and help them along, but in the end they are required to do the work, no matter what they did the night before or what they have coming up over the weekend. The students I have taught at RU are huge volunteers, provide more service then ever expected. They study hard and I assume they play hard in their own individual way. They tend to be dedicated and choose not to miss class.This past semester, I ended up teaching on two of the nights we were in the World Series, not one student missed! I am impressed by how they put their studies first, even though it is expected, as there are also a variety of distractions in college!

I am their mentor, not their friend:  WOW, that's a big hat to wear. I'm not even sure I have this whole life thing figured out, but I do take my professional career seriously. I feel my experiences in and out of the classroom as a teacher and an administrator  were meant to be shared with other future teachers. The good, the bad and the ugly. I explain why I loved and continue to love teaching, but the challenges and sacrifices which occur when you are a teacher. I remember appreciating my college professors being honest about ways they reached kids, when they made mistakes and how they learned from those mistakes. These preservice teachers are no different.   They have plenty of friends, they don't need me to pal around with.  They need me to guide them into experiences which will set them up for success as an educator and to become a mentor to others.

They are like onions:  Not stinky. Well, not usually. They come with layers and sometimes they can bring you tears when you least expect it. I seek to challenge them and push them to learn more and to be more. They can be very tricky at times and if you try to peel away a layer too quickly, they can fall apart. They can become aloof and their trust in you as a professor can be damaged.  I have learned to slow down. To take my time and encourage them to take their time over the semester to really let the content and their teaching experiences sink in, reflect on them and figure out how we can all learn from them. From time to time, tears of joy, tears of struggle and tears of relief are seen. These are few and far between, but when it happens I realize they are more delicate than I assume.

Don't forget your sharpened pencils and your charged iPad.
I have to remind them: I do struggle with this one. Do I really need to remind them to turn off their cell phones EVERY class. YES. Do I have to remind them that an assignment, which has been posted all semester, is due next class. YES. It's a "given" that that they need to come to class on time and do the readings prior to class, do I still need to remind them? YES.  Hyperlinking additional resources, offering extra help, checking in with each one frequently to make sure they are where they need to be? YES.  I give them reminders, not a grade. They have to earn that!

They remind me that I'm glad my college days are over:  I loved college, all of it. Could have I have studied more, yes. Where there things I would go back and change, maybe. But, overall, I love looking at old pics and reminiscing with the best of them. However, I am glad that chapter is over. Even more, I'm glad that my undergraduate students are in it. They get to write their own chapter, they get to live their own college experience. They get to tell me about it...and I get to watch them and smile.

Know a college student? Give them a big hug, tell them to work hard and be nice to their professors!

Enjoy my favorite song from Animal House...