Teaching, Humility, and Empathy

So I’ve been doing some thinking about what’s required in teaching and came to the conclusion that two traits we under emphasize in academia, especially when it comes to teaching, are empathy and humility. I was already thinking about this when I came across Luke Palmer’s post Disrespect in Education and what I’m going to be saying is, in some sense, not really that different but is from the other side of the lectern.

When I was a graduate student in physics, I frequently got into less than friendly arguments with my TA peers. One of the most common starts to these arguments was some variation of “if freshman aren’t doing well in this class, then they’re not smart enough to learn physics” or “some people are good enough to learn this and some people just aren’t, it’s genetics”. No, really, I had arguments that were based in the idea that most students got Cs in the intro physics course we were teaching because they were somehow genetically inferior to those of us who were graduate students.

That’s probably a bit of an extreme example, but it’s an attitude that I’ve seen in various forms everywhere I teach. A lot of lecturers at both the high school and university level have the attitude “if you’re not understanding this, I’m not a bad teacher, you’re a bad student”. This is horribly destructive. There’s an old “demotivator” poster I like that says something to effect of “the common link in all your failed relationships is you”. I think this is kind of true in teaching. If almost all of your students are confused about a topic, then you must have explained it poorly. If almost all of your students do badly on a particular homework or exam question, then that question must be poorly designed.

Perhaps it’s too obvious a statement, but teaching is hard. It’s a difficult thing to try and explain ideas and skills to others, particularly if you’re trying a traditional lecture format (although my feelings on that are left for another rant). Being an effective teacher means constantly paying attention to your students and reevaluating what works and what doesn’t, figuring out new metaphors and ways to present the material that students have an easier time understanding.

There’s a lot of trial and error in teaching. There’s a lot of feeling like you’ve screwed up and embarassed yourself. In order to be a good teacher, you need to not get defensive when students don’t understand you. It’s not because they’re stupid, it’s because you didn’t explain well and that’s okay! It’s not a personal attack on you. It doesn’t have to destroy your self-esteem if students aren’t doing well. We’re always going to make mistakes when doing hard things, it’s just that teaching is an inherently public activity and so we get the joy of public humiliation during those times when students grumble, groan, and act like we’re wasting their time with our foolishness.

Another problem is that a lot of teaching is done in a very adversarial way, where the students are being challenged to meet the bar the lecturer has set in order to prove themselves. I’m not saying that I’m against courses being challenging, in fact I think undergraduate coursework generally needs to be far more challenging than it is, but there’s a difference between inviting the students to come with you across a difficult and rewarding journey and setting forth a series of tasks that they must overcome to have worth in your eyes. The latter is how many classes I’ve taken have been taught and it’s the way many of my peers over the years teach classes. Even just last year another graduate student said, in reference to running his first course, “I’ll feel like I haven’t done my job unless at least one student fails”. I think that’s a terrible metric to have! We should never see it as a sign of our own prowess or intellect to have students that fail, yet that is an extremely common attitude. In general, I think it’s a very bad thing to have a student fail a course because of the cost to the student. Even at a fairly low-ranking state school such as this, failing a core course, which could entail simply getting less than a C depending on the rules of the major, means that they will probably be delayed by a term and be out at least a few thousand dollars in student debt and possibly even lose financial aid.

That’s a serious price to pay and not one I think that we should give out freely or gleefully. Am I saying that poor performance in a course doesn’t matter? No, of course not, but before we start acting as vengeful grading gods I think we first need to account for our own performance in the way we mete out final grades.

This is what I mean when I say that we need greater empathy and humility in teaching. We, collectively, need to be humble in accepting that being smart isn’t sufficient to teaching well and that we can and will make mistakes in how we explain things. We need to have the humility to understand that we are not somehow generally superior to our students and that their misapprehensions are at some level our own fault. And we need to have empathy in our approach to challenging students, striving to be more cooperative than adversarial, and in how we grade, taking in the full context of what a given grade means in a student’s life.


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