What I’ve learned in 10 Years of Teaching College (And Why I Give My Students High Fives)

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It is hard to believe. But, I’ve just completed teaching at the university level for 10 academic years.

At the age of 24, I  began teaching as a graduate student in 2006 at Washington State University where I independently taught 2 classes a semester for 4 years. I had no idea what I was doing. I was barely older than the seniors. With a textbook in hand and the summer to prepare, I jumped right in.

As of this past Friday, I have completed 6 years of teaching as an assistant professor. All of that has been working with undergraduates.

Here’s what I’ve learned in the 10 years since I began. I can boil it down into one concept:

The quality and effectiveness of the education you provide as an educator is a function of the culture you build.

teaching-college-10-years

So, if you want to succeed as an educator, you begin by building a pro-learning culture. And a pro-learning culture is a pro-student culture.

Yes, it is the student’s job to learn in a classroom. Just as it is your job to work at your job. But where would you rather work, in a positive, welcoming, enthusiastic environment, or a in drab office that has the inspiration and personality of a filing cabinet?

Believe in the students – My Ph.D. advisor taught me that, as educators, we all must decide whether we believe students are inherently good or bad. That sounds dramatic. Let me explain. You can believe that your students want to learn, are talented and capable person and are honest with good intentions. Or, you can assume that they are lazy, cynical, unmotivated, etc. Your attitude on this will affect how you perceive them and how you treat them. Believing in your students is the foundation that enables everything else I talk about below to work. Which brings me to…

Set the tone – Students are extremely bright and perceptive. If the culture of the classroom is disengaged or the professor seems disinterested or “going through the motions” then students quickly pick up on this. The tone of the classroom starts with the professor. I’ve had classes where I didn’t succeed in setting the right tone and while the tendency is to start thinking “it’s the students,” I always remind myself to look at the energy and performance that I’m bringing into the classroom. While some groups of students are more difficult than others to energize, we can all make efforts to set the tone and remember that we’re seen as the person who is in charge. Students mirror. If we’re mentally somewhere else, are students will be too. Which brings me to…

You’re The Role Model – All the talent in the world doesn’t necessarily produce results. Many talented, under-performing sports teams prove this rule.  Just as a great coach extracts great performance from talented players, a great educator extracts great performance from talented students.  Students are looking for a leader. They are looking for inspiration. They are looking for someone they can believe in and trust. I see it as my job to inspire my team – the students – to go out and win the game (that is, do great work).  That’s not something you do in 1 day. It is a semester-long push, just the way a coach must push a team not for 1 game but for a season. Being a role model is a marathon effort and it is communicated to students through your actions, words, and attitude in all facets of the class. Which brings me to…

Infect your students with enthusiasm – How? For me, I bring the enthusiasm for what I do each day. I love what I teach. I love teaching. Mood is infectious. Energy, excitement, passion, and inquisitiveness are infectious. I learned this the hard way. When I was first teaching as a graduate student, I pushed for and got the opportunity to teach a 400-level new media course. There were 40 students in the class. I designed the entire class myself and this was my first time doing so. I began teaching social media to these students at a time when I’d never heard of another class teaching social media. There was no textbook, there were no resources, nothing.  It took a ton of work to build the class. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t feel like the class was going well. Some students began to show up late or leave early. They’d just get up and walk out. My confidence was shattered and this was a vicious cycle. As I performed worse, the students seemed more disengaged, which caused me to perform worse. After that semester, I read through my evaluations. A few students commented that I “complained about the weather.” I didn’t realize that I’d even done that – I’d left Miami Florida for the long, bleak winters of Pullman, WA and hadn’t quite acclimated. 🙂  I reflected on this and realized it wasn’t necessarily the material that the students didn’t appreciate. It was my attitude. It was my style of delivery. I quickly realized these were things I was in complete control over.  I’d spent so much time worrying whether I was providing the best possible education, material-wise, that I hadn’t focused on how I delivered it. I was passionate about the topic – after all, I’d sought out this opportunity and built an entire class. What little that meant to the students. They had no idea how I felt inside. For me, that was an epiphany that changed my entire approach to education. Which leads me to…

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it -Delivery is important. Find creative ways to relay information. Beyond the passion of your delivery, is the manner of making content compelling. We’re all familiar with hands-on learning, flipped classrooms, and other ways to bring our classrooms to life with activities and not just lecture. But, moving beyond this, when we do lecture we can relay that information in memorable ways. I think each of us has our own talents and ways of telling the story of what we’re teaching. But, there are some great common tips we all can use from books like Made to Stick (I discussed how this book could be used in an earlier post). I’ve found that my favorite tactics are 1) to create mystery or suspense at the start of a lecture by withholding some piece of information or alluding to a funny anecdote or joke that I’ll reveal later in the class, 2) to make a big deal out of little things because, really, the little things are what matters. For example, I like to talk up activities we are going to in class, why they matter and how fun  they are going to be. I emphasize how valuable activities and lecture materials are going to be in helping students not only complete an assignment but succeed in other realms of their life or career. Which leads me to…

Make education an experience – I’ve never taken an acting class. But I look at education ‘as performance.’ Every time you’re in the classroom you’re putting on a performance. But the difference is that the audience can be actively engaged and participate in the story – they have roles. And that’s a pretty cool play. I try to do this in a lot of ways. Let me focus on one. I celebrate my students’ victories. I reward them for their success. I create awards and accolades. I show appreciation for them. I help them feel important. Here’s an example. For the last 6 academic years, I have given out “High-5 awards.” The idea is simple. As the syllabus in all of my classes reads, “High-fives will be given to students who miss no more than 2 classes at the end of the semester; two-handed high fives for students who miss no classes.” It is important to note that there is absolutely no grade associated with this high-5. You don’t get a better grade for having stellar attendance. On the last day of class, I play Rocky music and give out the high-5s. Double high-fives come with a little certificate that I sign.  I nervously tried this the first semester that I taught at Utah Valley University. I expected the students to laugh it off and not want to participate. How wrong I was. They loved it. It quickly caught on and the word spread. I’ve had students tell me they came back to take a class from me simply because they wanted to get another high-5.  I’ve had students tell me they came to class when they were sick, tired, or otherwise didn’t’ feel like, just so they wouldn’t miss out on getting the high-5 at the end of the semester.  How powerful is that?

This year, I gave out a very special high-5. I had a student who took 6 different classes from me and never missed a single day. Not once. To reward this student, I created a new award in his name. I made a special certificate that I framed and gave to him. I also created a sort of  plaque with his picture and name and hung it in my office. The idea is that if another student repeats this difficult task, he or she would be the recipient of this special award have their name added to the plaque that hangs in my office.

I’ve thought a lot about why the students like the high-5 awards so much.  Yes, it’s corny. Yes, they get a laugh out if it.  But I think the answer is simple. It shows I appreciate and recognize them. That I’m not just there to ‘download’ information to them. But, that I’m there to root for them.

Conclusion

All people respond to their environment. That environment can be motivating or demotivating. Educators have the power to be leaders. It seems that sometimes that is forgotten in our society.

But I know so many passionate and dedicated educators. I’ve seen the great things they’ve accomplished and the impact they have on lives. These people have inspired me in my 10 years of teaching. And it’s because of the educators I know and the wonderful students I’ve had the opportunity to teach that I’m excited about the future.

I love what I do. And this is what’s worked for me: putting my energy into creating a welcoming, rigorous, tolerant, and energetic culture in the classroom.

– Cheers,

Matt

photo CC NEC Corporation of America

 

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