WHAT IS YOUR DEFAULT ATTITUDE TOWARD STUDENTS?



Last week a friend told me that he was interested in reading my teaching blog.  However, he did not want to slog his way through 276 essays to find the most relevant stuff so could I point out a few “best of Joe” essays.  I told him the truth – whether a particular essay was meaningful to a person depended on what issues that teacher was facing at the moment.  Nevertheless, I picked five for him that I had written recently that I thought captured much of the essence of my teaching philosophy.  I like all 276 essays but here are five that sound like what I am trying to accomplish in my own classes.  I like the idea that a teacher can develop a stated philosophy about his or her role in the learning process.  These reflect mine.

Advice for New College Teachers – November 10, 2018


The One Characteristic of All Great Teachers – August 15, 2018


Better Stories Make for Better Students – March 31, 2018


Closing the Holes of Swiss Cheese Knowledge – January 23, 2018


Teaching Fido to Roll Over – August 3, 2016


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A few weeks ago I was reading a novel and the author described one of the characters in an insightful way, “Her default attitude was one of anger.  Whenever something happened, her first instinct was to find some reason to become angry about it.  Unless stopped, she tended to move straight to anger.”

I found that observation interesting because I know many people who clearly have default attitudes or personalities.  They are either prone to laugh or seem puzzled or curious or, indeed, become angry or moody.  That is the personality they seem to gravitate towards when something unexpected happens.  I'll bet you have friends that have distinct and obvious default attitudes.

I immediately began to wonder what attitude I move toward with my students.   Do I seem welcoming?  Do I seem overworked?   Do I seem interested?  In the fall of 1967, I was a sophomore in college and was taking a computer science class.  I was struggling with a problem.  The professor had office hours and had said to come by if we had a problem.  I decided to take him up on his offer.  I knocked and was told to enter.  He was deep in conversation with a colleague and within one second it was obvious by his demeanor that he was busy and did not want me in his office, no matter what my problem was.  I am sure he was working on an important project and was facing deadlines or some other impending crisis.  I exited his office as quickly as I could and never returned.  I do not  know whether I had just come at a bad time or whether his default attitude toward students was somewhere between exasperation and annoyance.  I felt guilty for intruding.

We are all busy.  It is easy to be annoyed when a student looks in and asks, “Professor, may I ask you a couple of questions?”  What message is my attitude sending to this student?  In 52 years, will he still feel that his presence had annoyed me?

I only stay in my office approximately seven hours each week.  I suspect some readers will think that is a lot whereas others will think it is minuscule.  It is the time I choose to make myself available to my students (although I do take other questions by email).  Nevertheless, during those seven hours, I make every attempt to avoid seeming annoyed or frustrated.  I have read that whenever people talked with Mother Teresa, they always felt that they had her undivided attention, that they were the only people in her life at that moment.  I don’t pretend to be on the level of Mother Teresa, but I do try my best to focus on the student sitting in front of me – what they are telling me and what can I do about it?

I guess the default attitude that I try to project to my students is that, “I am here.  I am listening.  I am ready to help if I can.”  I am not trying to coddle my students or do the work for them.  Last week, for about the 20th straight year, I was named the most challenging professor at the Robins School of Business.  So being a listener and a helper does NOT necessarily mean that you do not challenge your students.  It simply means that I try to listen and help where I can.  For those seven hours each week, I want to be able to help students figure out how they can do better.  The first step in that process is adopting an attitude that does not make them feel like they need to exit the office as quickly as possible.

But, as I have often said on this blog, that is me.  Everyone has to develop their own personal attitude toward students and teaching.   If you asked your students today, “What seems to be my default attitude toward students?” then (1) what would you want them to say and (2) what do you think they would actually say?  How close or far apart are (1) and (2)?  Nothing in teaching should ever be random.  What default attitude do you want to have when a student comes to your door and says, “Professor, may I come in and ask a couple of questions?”

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