My Last Class Tonight…After 25 Years
The first university level class I taught was in 1994 at the ripe old age of 26, and tonight after 25 years as a full time professor, I teach my last. The first class was a group of Masters students starting their degrees, and the last class tonight is a group of Masters students finishing their degrees. Quite fitting. If you want to see where I’m going next, check out this post from back in January, 2020 (http://wildleaders.org/big-changes-called-to-my-next-after-21-years/#.Xt_8LS8iefA), but that’s not the purpose of this moment for me. This moment is a chance to pause, and reflect on my lessons regarding teaching after all these years. To be honest, beyond my students, I have only had one or two mentoring voices speak deeply into my teaching. So, if any of my thoughts encourage even one aspiring teacher, that would be enough. Here is top my 10 list of lessons, in the hours before I teach my last class as a full time Professor. I don’t have all these perfected, but this is what I would have told my younger self.
- We are architects of learning, and of hope. I don’t consider myself a great teacher or professor, but I’ve been a pretty good architect of learning. Unfortunately, even today, the most prominent examples we have to lean on as teachers are those of lecturers behind podiums or in front of massive classrooms. When these become our only role models for teaching, we mimic those behaviors and fail to see that there is another way. The problem is that role modeling is powerful, and we need models and someplace to start. But, in the process we lose sight of different paradigms. The best teachers I experienced are architects of learning, and of hope. At our best, each class session is like a room in a house that is carefully architected for a specific purpose. Each class session is structured in a way that challenges students to the core, and gives them hope for something better in the future. Architects of learning are more than lecturers. They are those who create the learning spaces that change our lives.
- It’s a long play. Just as architects design buildings to last, our greatest teachers structure learning that’s long term. Teaching is so often preparation for an unexperienced future, and that’s what makes it hard work. I wish someone had told me when I first started teaching that the investment I was making in my students was one that was going to pay off and be obvious ten or fifteen years later. It’s really hard but necessary work to be educating the ten year older self of a student who doesn’t know the knocks that are coming in their career or life. After 25 years, I now have the evidence of students who thank me later for something I said that challenged them ten or twenty years ago. When you begin to see your teaching in this moment as deep-seated preparation for their future self, it changes everything. It’s hard when they don’t understand when they are in our classrooms, but trust me, some will not only understand, but thank you later. And, one convicted statement from your heart may change the trajectory of a life – of that student.
- Course evaluations are over-rated (quite literally), but important. We need the feedback, but if student satisfaction is elevated above deep learning and being challenged to learn, we’ve lost the point. And, referring to #2 above, they may not appreciate the challenge until later. The greatest metric I ever had the courage to design was in a course called “Hacking the World of Work.” Our metric for the effectiveness of each class session was that each week, ⅓ of the students should love the class, ⅓ should be on the fence, and ⅓ should hate the class session. However, here’s the kicker. Each week, different students should be in those different thirds. In other words, we committed to architecting a learning experience where different students would love or hate the class each week. Admittedly, I likely would not have had the courage to design such a class if it had not been team taught with three other brilliant professors. My point is this. Look at your teaching evaluations as one important metric, but fight the temptation to view student “satisfaction” as the only important metric for learning. Remind yourself that most learning wasn’t about satisfaction, but about you being challenged in ways you’d not imagined.
- We are preparing leaders and human beings, not just philosophers, practitioners and scientists. I will never forget a conversation I had with a former seminary student who was a pastor and struggling as a leader in the organization in which he had been called to serve. He said, “Not one of my peers from seminary is now saying, “I just wish I had taken more Greek.” They wanted preparation to lead, and to be human, and to manage the hardest interactions of life and work.”” To be clear, I wish I had taken Greek and gone to seminary, but my point is this. The disciplines (mathematics, sociology, psychology, business, theology, philosophy, nursing, medicine, law, music, physics, biology, history, economics, etc.) matter, and we are also preparing students for complex lives and relationships. So often we dismiss the disciplines from the development of the self, and each are necessary for the other. It’s why I’m not a huge fan of degrees in leadership. Leadership requires a function or philosophical discipline and practice, and the disciplines require intentional integration of the reflective self – leader or not. The greatest teaching moments of my career have been moments when my discipline of psychology came face to face with the reality of a student – as a developing self in relationship to others.
- Care about every student, but avoid the pressure to feel that they all need to like you. If you teach long enough and with conviction, there will be students who appreciate you beyond your imagination, and there will be those who will never look at you again in the halls. As teachers we occupy a strange and challenging space between caring deeply for students and evaluating them. As a teacher, you will be required to evaluate and “score”, pass, or fail students. There are always a small number of students who may never understand the decision you made or the grade you gave, and that will be hard. There are students who, regardless of my efforts to fight for them behind the scenes, will likely never appreciate the decisions I had to make as their professor and teacher. It’s not easy for me, but I hold out hope that they will offer me grace at some point for the position I was in as evaluator and as teacher.
- Teaching is an invitation and a proclamation. The word teacher is both accurate and problematic. Think of the last time you were taught something. The most effective teachers give you the facts in a way that inspires you to look more closely, and then they invite you to experience it for yourself. I hear it said so often that our students should take responsibility for their own learning. But, there are two problems with that statement. First, “should” isn’t motivational to most of us. And, second, students have rarely been invited to take responsibility for their own learning, so they push back – for a while. I have seen so many graduate students come with deeply rutted assumptions about what an education should be like. They’re used to pedagogy that is spoken at them from a podium, and habituated to tests where they have focused on the answer to the question, “Will this be on the test?” Great teaching is both lectures that answer, and questions that invite. Questions that invite students into their learning at the deepest levels aren’t test questions that the professor knows the correct answer to, but honest questions that are unanswered until the student moves toward the tension of the unanswered question. Great teaching requires both kinds of questions. However, be aware that students will not always like the open-ended questions because many have not experienced the open ended nature of life that will require them to go there. But, avoid the temptation to appease the ⅓ who will push back and miss the opportunity to invite the ⅓ who are on the fence, and the ⅓ who will go there with you right away.
- Focus on the top third who are developmentally ready, and keep the door open for those who will get there. Some students will be more developmentally ready than others. If you focus on that third with an eye to the rest, most will come around. if you focus your attention on the disrupters and those who are resistant to learning, you will lose everyone. You cannot please everyone, but you can invite them. And, hold on to hope that students do change. One of the best parts of teaching over the long haul has been seeing the most reactive, resistant and problematic students come around. The challenge of avoiding the temptation to spend the most time with the most resistant students will always be there, but know that people do change, whether in our season with them or after. And, it’s not only the students who are challenging to professors and to their peers that come around, but also those who struggle in certain disciplines. One of my graduate students who struggled deeply with statistics as a student became one of the greatest statisticians and teachers of statistics that I have ever had the opportunity to mentor.
- You learn as much from good role models as bad ones. In 1994, I knew next to nothing about teaching. What I did know, I had learned from both my good and not so good professors. The ones I didn’t perceive as the greatest gifts to teaching taught me a lot…maybe just as much as the good role models. The ones who struggled gave me very strong convictions about what not to do, and the greatest gave me pathways to something better. They all taught me something common though. Different students will respond well to different professors. One of my early mentoring voices was a voice I didn’t appreciate very much, nor do I appreciate today. She used to say to me early in my teaching career, “Go out and get your mid-level management lumps and then come back and teach.” While I knew her intentions were to help me, I now know that I shouldn’t have let her voice cause me to question my competence to teach. Experience doesn’t always make you a good teacher. In fact, the idea that having been a business CEO makes you a good teacher is such a lie. It might help, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will have the competence to teach. Here’s what I learned from the greats and the not-so-greats. First, don’t lecture for 60 to 90 minutes at a time. Give students a chance to engage with the topic. Provide content and then let them stretch developmentally and personally. And second, don’t apologize for the content of a class. Find a place that excites you and speak and teach from there. Professors who were excited about their content were such an inspiration.
- You will have one good lecture. In the end, there will be a developmental theme of your teaching. If you ask my students in the United States, my students in Ecuador, or my students in India the theme of my teaching, I think I know what they would say. My developmental theme has been conviction. I am deeply driven by pushing and inviting students into a deeper level of awareness and testing of what they really believe about themselves, their world, and their service to others. Especially for those who feel like imposters or who are reluctant to step out in front and lead, I have always wanted to encourage those reluctant voices to come and be heard. In the same way, I would encourage you to find your one good lecture. Find that thing that drives you to architect great learning experiences for students.
- And finally, know when it’s time to stop. One of my greatest mentors over the years is one of my professors, Alec Hill. Alec taught me so many things about great teaching by modeling it to me and to every one of my peers who had the privilege to learn in his classrooms. And, at one point he told me that it was surprising that someone like me had lasted for as many years as I had as a teacher and professor. His comment spoke to me because it gave me permission to look out for the time when it was important to move on. I will teach a course from time to time when called, but my time teaching in a traditional sense and in a full time way is over for now. My own development and the people for whom I feel called to architect learning has changed. I once asked another mentor in my life named Tim Weber if he still prepared for classes, and he said, “Not as much.” I think it’s important to know when it’s time to let someone else do the preparation, and invest elsewhere. And maybe, if you’re blessed to witness something you don’t deserve, like me, you will see others who you’ve taught do the teaching.