My teaching philosophy boils down to this: Don’t be a jerk. Give your students the benefit of the doubt.
College students are young adults or old adolescents, depending on who you ask. They go through a lot of brain and personality development during the four-ish years they spend in college. A few of them are entitled, or sociopathic, or just jerks who make your life harder. The vast majority are not. They are just young people who are trying to figure themselves out and get a degree.
When I talk to professors about the things I’m passionate about (Trauma-Informed Pedagogy, Intersectionality, Critical Pedagogy) they are usually interested. But when I talk about my policies, or how I deal with students who are experiencing trauma, some get uncomfortable. “I don’t want students to come talk to me about their lives.” “What if they are taking advantage of you?” Some are openly adversarial and hostile towards students, though I don’t hang out with them much. Shocker.
If you want to see yourself as a nice person or a good teacher, ask yourself this:
- What do you have to lose by giving students the benefit of the doubt?
- What do you lose by being friendly and approachable?
- And more importantly, what do you gain by being suspicious and judgemental?
- Who are you helping?
- Is your work more fulfilling when students are afraid of you?
- Is it healthy or realistic to assume students are lying or manipulating you?
I’ve had some bad teachers because I’ve had a whole lot of school. One yelled at the class and told us our ideas were “pablum” because we didn’t mimic his conclusions. He was special. One, a terrible writer, tried to convince me that accessible writing was bad writing. My sixth-grade teacher hated smart kids and bullied and intimidated them in front of the class. They were all either adversarial towards students or easily threatened. They lacked ego strength. They were bullies who took advantage of the power distance between themselves and their students.
The thing that ties together the best of my teachers and professors is this: Grace. Assuming the best, but being able to critique in a concise but kind way. Having clear boundaries but being willing to hear critical feedback. Having compassion for students and genuinely liking or loving teaching. Having ego strength and being willing to deal with setbacks and failure as steps on the path towards being better rather than blaming students. They had humility and compassion mixed with a goodly amount of confidence in their own abilities and a willingness to learn and improve.
The last year, and particularly the last semester, has just absolutely sucked for students. It’s sucked for teachers too, but it’s REALLY sucked for college students. My students have had issues with housing, anxiety, depression, relapse, and the suicides of their classmates. Many got COVID because they live together and they can’t control the practices of their roommates. Many are working full-time to lessen the financial strain on families hurt by the pandemic and our inability to provide anything like a social safety net for our population. They’ve lost friends and relatives to COVID, mental health issues, and other issues worsened by the social upheaval and ongoing structural inequality in our society. They are tired, stressed, and some are past their limits.
My university is usually pretty hands-off when it comes to how we run our classrooms as long as we are in compliance with the law, and those of us who have been sounding the alarm on student mental health are often ignored. But this semester things got much worse in the form of Snowvid — the mass power, gas, and water outages in Texas due to a snowstorm and prolonged freeze. We were all affected, me included. It was awful. The university urged us to give students extra grace: time on assignments, absences, etc. Most of us did. Some didn’t. Too many of my students told me about teachers holding Zoom classes on days the university was closed due to the freeze (after explicitly telling faculty not to hold classes or give tests) or giving exams the first day back.
I got the highest student feedback scores ever this semester, and they are always pretty high. Here’s why: I didn’t assume students were trying to take advantage of me, BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. I am worried about students dying, not whether or not I’m a sucker. If I catch a student blatantly lying or cheating I will take action because it’s irresponsible to let them think it’s okay, and they may do much worse harm in the future if someone doesn’t hold them responsible. But beyond that, I do not care if a student asks for an extension because of a hangover or a hospitalization. I really don’t. I still failed students this semester, despite a super lenient policy about late work and willingness to be flexible on attendance. If you don’t do the work, you don’t pass. That’s part of my job. But I do not regret helping the students who were able to pull their acts together at the last minute pass my classes. I don’t regret making accommodations for students who were having issues with depression but hadn’t gotten a letter from the disability office yet. I don’t regret letting students who were doing full-time child care for bereaved relatives have a pass on Zoom.
If your main joy in teaching is really schadenfreude and you relish the power you have to make your students’ lives suck, please find another profession. If you are more concerned about being hoodwinked than you are about your students learning, why are you teaching? It can’t be the money.
Stressed-out students don’t learn well. (Stressed out teachers have issues too — believe me. My memory this year has been affected.) Further stressing them out when you could extend them some grace is just sadistic. I am so tired of hearing about “weed-out” classes that result in students dropping out of school. The students who really don’t want to be there will leave, believe me. You should not have a free pass to be an jerk because you teach a difficult course.
If the culture of your department or school is adversarial towards students, say something. Do something. You CAN influence culture change over time. Showing students that they can expect compassion and humanity from teachers empowers them to make change and demand better treatment and policies from their institutions. Giving students a place where they can be authentic has had the added advantage of making me a better teacher. When students trust me enough to tell me I made a mistake, I can fix it (or myself). You can effectively wield authority while still being a decent human being who treats students like decent human beings. I promise. I could post a ton of research from different fields on the minutiae of why trauma-informed, growth mindset, inclusive, experiential, reflective teaching is better teaching, but it really boils down to this. Don’t be an jerk to your students.