In her new blog feature called Teaching Tuesday, novelist and professor Cathy Day shared her technique for learning students’ names on the first day of class. I do something similar: I fill out a classroom seating map as my students go around the room on the first day introducing themselves with their names, hometowns, and something else. Sometimes I ask something kind of boring, like “why did you decide to take this class,” but in a required class like Composition, I usually ask them to share something interesting about themselves that we wouldn’t know by looking at them. Since that, on a first day, is basically everything, students can share what they wish to share.
I definitely learn names more quickly when students say quirky things. Like the guy in my Comp class this semester who said he’s allergic to cheap shoes. I’m still thinking about that one.
I used to be able to learn all the names on the first day, but now I usually need two class periods. Yet another sign of aging brain!
What I was really struck by in Day’s post, however, was this comment at the end:
being a good teacher isn’t just about your syllabus, how smart you are, how knowledgeable, how you’re perceived in your discipline. It’s about whether or not you have the ability to get through to people.
Getting through to people. That’s really what good teachers do in the classroom.
We don’t teach content: we teach people. People who want to know if we’re someone they want to learn from. The foundation of good teaching is being the kind of person students want to learn from.
Yet this isn’t something we’re supposed to talk about or even acknowledge–and it certainly isn’t something we’re supposed to cultivate.
Being “fun” or being “popular” with students puts you on the fast track to being “that” teacher. You know, the one who gives out A’s. The one who lets students slide. The one who doesn’t have high expectations.
I used to think comments like that–which I’ve heard plenty of–stemmed from professional jealousy, but now I think they stem as much from a fundamental misunderstanding of what teaching and learning means. Common sense tells us that we learn better when we feel capable of learning, when someone we respect takes an interest in our growth, when we are excited and full of wonder about a subject and can share that excitement and wonder with others. Good learning is about connection and community.
Our own personal experiences give us plenty of examples that confirm the importance of those connections. I hated science in high school and nearly flunked out of Biology and Chemistry. And then somehow I pulled an A in Physics, which was so much harder as well as dependent upon higher math skills that I didn’t possess. But I had a remarkable teacher who knew how to get through to people. I worked harder in his class than I had ever worked in a Science class. Not because I was passionate about the subject matter, but because he was and because he made me feel like I could learn.
I wonder if the reason we downplay the importance of “the ability to get through to people” is because we can’t measure it. We know it when we see it; we feel it when we’re in that kind of classroom. There is a different energy and quality of attention at work in such classrooms. But I can’t rate it on a rubric. I can’t give a pre-test and post-test for it.
But I know it’s the key to the kind of classrooms my students want to create.
First, they have to be the kind of person students want to learn from.