What Students Want From Teachers

August 24, 2014 — 23 Comments

Excellent Sheep.What do students want from their teachers?

  • Information?
  • Good grades?
  • Friendship?
  • Leadership?
  • Knowledge?

Slate produced a helpful excerpt from William Deresiewicz’s book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where he argues students want two things from their teachers. They want their teachers to:

  1. challenge them
  2. care about them.

My years in the classroom, as well as my conversations with young people about their college experience, have convinced me there are two things, above all, that students want from their pro­fessors. Not, as people commonly believe, to entertain them in class and hand out easy A’s. That’s what they retreat to, once they see that nothing better is on offer. What they really want is that their teach­ers challenge them and that they care about them. They don’t want fun and games; they want the real thing.

What they want, in other words, is mentorship.

That is why many times the best classrooms are run as a mix of lecture and seminar.

Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. “Educate” means “lead forth.” A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. To put it in the language of computers, you can download all the data you want, but it won’t be any good to you unless you have the software to make use of it. That software, the ability to operate on information—to understand it, to synthe­size it into new combinations, to discover and create with it—is what college is meant to “install.” But here the analogy breaks down, for unlike actual software, the installation isn’t quick and easy, and it certainly isn’t passive.

The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges asser­tions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and en­courages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them. Some of those questions should be ones she doesn’t know the answer to herself. Discussion in a seminar should be collaborative and open-ended, alive with serendipity and the energy of immi­nent discovery—a model, too, of how to think together.

Teacher-ShortageHow are teachers to both challenge students and care about them? What skills do you need to have? The first step is to be yourself.

For all the skill that teaching involves, you ultimately only have a single tool: your entire life as you have lived it up until the moment you walk into class. “The teacher, that professional amateur,” said the critic Leslie Fiedler, “teaches not so much his subject as himself.” He provides a model, he went on, “of one in whom what seemed dead, mere print on the page, becomes living, a way of life.” I developed a rule of thumb in graduate school. If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him. It’s not that I needed my teachers to be confessional; I just needed them to be present. “Mortimer Adler had much to tell us about Aristotle’s Ethics,” Saul Bellow wrote about the University of Chicago eminence, “but I had only to look at him to see that he had nothing useful to offer on the conduct of life.”

Students want you to be honest, not least about yourself. They want you to be yourself. You need to step outside the role a bit, regard it with a little irony, if only to acknowledge the dissonance between the institution and the spirit. It often feels that there are certain things you cannot say inside a classroom—the most serious things that you want to say, the most genuine things. You want to say that life is tragic, that we are dangling above a void, that what’s at stake, when you read a book, is nothing less than life itself. But you feel your institutional surroundings holding you as if between quotation marks. You fear that your words will fall to the ground with an audible clink. That is where a little distance from the situ­ation is of service. Just because I say this stuff in class, I used to tell my students, doesn’t mean I don’t believe it.

There are two things that kids invariably tell you about their favorite professors. The first one is “she teaches about everything.” That’s never literally true, of course, so what does it actually mean? Great teachers, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus remark, are not bound by disciplinary ideas of what they’re allowed to say. They connect the material at hand, in a way that feels spacious and free, with anything to which it might be relevant. They connect it to ex­perience, and so they shed light on experience—on your experience. Just as great art gives you the feeling of being about “life”—about all of it at once—so does great teaching. The boundaries come down, and somehow you are thinking about yourself and the world at the same time, thinking and feeling at the same time, and instead of seeing things as separate parts, you see them as a whole. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. A student put it to me this way, about a professor in an oceanic studies program: “He made marine ecology reflect universal truths.”

You know great teaching the moment you encounter it. Yes, you feel, this is it—this is what I came for. It reaches deep inside you. It satisfies desires that you didn’t know you had. It makes the world feel newly large and meaningful—exactly, again, like art. The other thing that students say about their favorite teachers is “he changed my life.”

These insights are not only relevant for the academy, but for the church.

Maybe that is why the Bible was so wise to call the pastor not only a teacher, but a shepherd, an overseer.

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

23 responses to What Students Want From Teachers

  1. Yes! I recognize this completely in my students and in my own classroom.

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