|Many of us have become academics because we want to teach, and to
teach well. Most academics I work with were inspired by a particularly
brilliant teacher at some point in their education. And many
went into academia because of an inspiring role model.
Yet the tenure track tends to reward avid researchers and prolific
writers before rewarding good teachers.
How can we teach well while remaining productive in other areas
of our career?
Are you teaching this semester?
If so, start by SETTING BOUNDARIES.
Setting boundaries is a way of protecting yourself from the small
percentage of students who will suck up your time and emotional
The 90/10 Ratio of
In most areas of life the 80/20 rule
prevails. This rule reminds us that that 80 percent of life's
hassles come from 20 percent of our problems.
However, in the classroom, the 80/20
ratio shifts to 90/10. In other words, when we are teaching,
90 percent of our headaches come from 10 percent of our students.
Every semester there are a few needy, or defiant, or obnoxious,
or pathetic, or complaining students who cause the vast majority
of our problems.
Prepare yourself in advance for these difficult students by preparing
1) Know when and how to refer students to other campus resources.
Be aware of all the helpful campus resources available for problem
students. Keep cards with the phone numbers and locations of the
resources to hand out when needed. Be ready to refer students who
ask you to solve problems beyond your area of expertise or responsibility.
These resources include: Counseling and Psychological Services;
Health Services; Writing Centers; Academic Services; Learning Disabilities
Centers; Deans and Department Chairs. Don't become your students'
counselor or writing teacher.
2) Establish clear policies about how you handle email.
Have clear policies for yourself about when and how frequently you
will respond to your students' email messages. You would not allow
your students to call you at home at 11pm, would you? Then why do
you open and respond to their emails late in the evening?
You are not required to be available to students 24/7!
I recommend waiting to read and respond to all student email messages
until pre-set email "office hours" - and no more than 2 or 3 times
per week. If you can refrain from reading their e-queries, great.
If this restraint is impossible for you, then at least keep from
answering the messages. Don't train your students to expect email
replies from you within minutes or hours. Treat email more like
your in-person office hours: a teaching responsibility that is scheduled
for specific times of the week. Beware of emails that take a long
time to reply to: if a student asks you a question that will take
more than 3 minutes to write a response, reply by asking the student
to come to your office hours. Decide on your policy regarding email
in advance and outline it in the course syllabus. Go over your email
policy in the first class and as needed over the course of the semester.
3) Set limits on how much of your time to devote to specific
All of us have had a few students who became regulars at our office
hours, showing up each week with one problem or another. Let these
students know that it is unfair to their peers to take so much of
your time. Suggest that they find a way to deal with their problems
more independently by: seeking out other campus resources; working
with other students in the class; or withdrawing from the course.
Check with other professors in your department to find out whether
they have had problems with the same students - often, particular
students become notorious because they wreak havoc in all of their
classes. Find out how other professors have dealt with the person
who is giving you problems, or how they have handled similar issues.
4) Establish clear and consistent policies on late papers and
Talk with other professors in your department about how they handle
late and missed assignments. Establish clear and specific policies
and state it in your syllabus and early class lectures. Try to avoid
becoming the judge of your students excuses. For example, you may
want to set a policy that requires a note from health services if
students miss exams or deadlines because of illness. If students
know about this policy in advance, they can get the required doctor's
note and you will never be asked to diagnose flu symptoms again.
Beware of making your policies too rigid or punitive: each semester
their will be excellent and honest students who face true life crises
or serious illnesses and your policies need to account for legitimate
excuses in a compassionate and reasonable way.
5) Learn respectful, professional ways of managing student incivilities.
Robert Boice, in his book Advice for New Faculty Members
does an excellent job of talking about how to prevent and manage
"student incivilities" such as late arrivals to class, obnoxious
verbal challenges, etc.,. Many books about teaching give tips for
keeping discussions for straying on unproductive tangents and for
managing students who talk too much. Develop personal strategies
for coping with these common difficulties.
No matter how rude a student is to you, always remain calm and
respectful. Growing visibly angry in class will undermine your
authority. Never be afraid to give yourself time to think about
a situation. When a rude student makes a complaint or a demand in
class, avoid giving an answer or making a decision in the heat of
the moment. Let's say that several students loudly proclaim that
your mid-term was unfair and that the class grade average should
be raised significantly. Rather than making a hasty response that
you may later regret, say that you'd like time to consider their
request carefully. Then get back to the planned class content. Learn
to gracefully cut off unproductive class discussions. Never put
down or disparage your students. Sarcasm in the classroom will always
get you in trouble.
6) Don't over-prepare.
Decide on how much time you should devote to class preparation,
keeping in mind your other academic responsibilities and priorities.
Then schedule specific hours for preparing lectures and try to keep
within your budget. If you consistently find yourself "overspending
your budget" for class prep time, then carefully assess the problem.
Are you being a perfectionist? No class is ever perfect and no class
is superb the first semester it is taught. Realize that you will
do well to provide an adequate educational experience the first
semester you teach a new class. It takes time to develop an optimum
curriculum and teaching methods. Don't expect to be wonderful at
first. Allow yourself to teach a "good enough" class.
7) Avoid trying to cover too much.
Most new teachers try to cover about twice as much material as they
should. It is much more important to cover the essentials well than
to try to squeeze in everything. There are several quick ways of
deciding whether you are being over ambitious in the amount of content
you hope to cover. If you consistently run overtime in your class
lectures you are trying to cover too much. Students resent teachers
who run late. Always try to end five minutes early. Leaving a few
minutes at the end of class for questions is an easy way to increase
your popularity. If you fall behind on your syllabus then you are
trying to cover too much. Don't be afraid to revise your syllabus
and cut out sections of material if you find yourself running behind.
Go through your notes and cull all but the essential points.
8) Request student feedback on a regular basis.
Don't wait until the end of the semester to find out what your students
think of you and your class. Instead of relying on final, official
evaluation forms, sample your students opinions throughout the semester.
There are many ways of getting feedback. Perhaps the easiest is
to ask students to write one minute evaluations throughout the semester.
Pause during the class, or reserve time at the end of a class, and
ask your students to write about what they've learned, or what they
think of the particular class, or what they think you are doing
well, or how you might improve. There are many benefits of "taking
the class temperature" on a regular basis. You'll get many great
ideas for improving the course by asking your students for feedback.
You'll become more popular because your students will feel like
their needs are heard and considered. You'll catch dissatisfactions
early and keep small problems from becoming large. You'll get a
treasure chest of positive quotes from students that you can use
in a teaching portfolio for your tenure review or a job application.
You'll find out what the quiet students think - and not allow your
course to be hijacked by the loud and demanding minority.