Last week, Dr Paul Clikeman and I were installed as Robins Teaching Fellows here at the University of Richmond. We had a nice ceremony where we each got to speak for 15 minutes or so. I will include the URL for the video at the bottom of this essay in case you want to watch.
We were asked to speak about our teaching philosophies. As anyone who has followed this blog for long knows, I have dozens if not hundreds of teaching philosophies. I could probably have talked for 15 hours instead of just 15 minutes.
Over the summer, I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Bill McCarthy at Michigan State speak at a conference. He said that he wanted his classes to be transformative experiences. I liked the sound of that and it has become a theme of mine during the fall of 2019. As I tell my students, “If this class isn’t going to make you different, I am not sure why you would ever do the work or even show up.”
In developing my 15 minutes talk, I decided to focus on three teaching philosophies that have been transformative for me. I figured if they had changed me maybe they could change others as well.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY ONE
In late August, I came to campus one morning and found that a student from the class of 1987 had left me a note on a 3 x 5 card that she had slid under my office door. It said, “I wanted to thank you for giving me the kick in the rear that I needed as a college student. My career would not have been the same without it.” I smiled. I had not seen this student in 32 years and this was her primary memory of the experience.
Two days later, I received a six-page hand written letter from a student in the class of 2013. I had not seen her in six years. The entire first page talked about how stressful my class was to her. As I read, I feared that she had gone into therapy because of my teaching style. However, at the end of the first page she wrote, “Your, albeit, stressful class prepared me for the real world, and for that, all I can say is Thank You.” Again, I was pleased.
If this were an English literature class, I would probably comment that I am beginning to see a theme here. It is that theme that leads me to my first teaching philosophy. Approximately 50 years ago, I was watching television and a pro football coach was being interviewed. I think it was Vince Lombardi but I am not sure. He said, “There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great.” I believed that completely 50 years. I believe it just as absolutely today. Those few words have formed the very foundation of my teaching. From working with thousands of students, I do believe that there is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great. Sometimes it might be buried quite deep but it is there.
When I talk about my former students and provide you with this quote, you probably view my class as me leading a bunch of oxen out into a field where I whip them unmercifully to get them to do the work. Well, that is not how I view my teaching at all.
I tell my students that education should be like a beautiful dance where two parties come together and push each other to be great. One party does half the work and the other does half the work and when it all clicks something absolutely marvelous is created. When it goes right, there are days in class that are simply beautiful. But it doesn’t happen by accident. I have to push the students to be great and they have to push me to be great. If either fails, then we both fail. Go to Youtube and search for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and you will see what I mean.
People often ask me if I have had favorite classes over the years and the answer is, “Certainly. My favorite classes have always been those students that pushed me the hardest to be great.”
My philosophy is simple – if you push your students as hard as humanly possible and convince them to push you back with equal vigor and excitement, you will be amazed by how great the learning can become.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY TWO
I came to campus 13 years ago and one of the members of our faculty had put a magazine article in my mail box with the simple words, “I think you will like this.” It was from the October 19, 2006, issue of Fortune magazine. The article was “What It Takes to be Great” by Geoffrey Colvin. As the title implies, the article describes research on how people become great singers, chess masters, violists, and the like. The article was interesting to me but there were two assertions near the beginning that really caught my attention. “In virtually every field of endeavor, most people learn quickly at first, then more slowly and then stop developing completely. Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.”
These sentences seem so obvious that they are hardly worth noting. If I take up playing the piano, I will gradually improve for a time but will eventually plateau and improvement will cease. That happens all the time. Nevertheless, it is the second sentence that caught my attention. “Yet a few do improve for years and even decades, and go on to greatness.” That has stayed with me almost daily for 13 years.
I love that concept – if I can continue to improve year after year, then eventually, I will become great. Okay, it might take 135 years but it is inevitable if I just work to improve.
If we evaluate each of our endeavors, then we all fall into one of two groups. For most activities that we undertake, we are probably in the plateau group. We reach a level where additional improvement does not seem worth the effort and we become stuck. In all honesty, many of the teachers I have observed over the decades are in this plateau group. A few, though, continue to improve year after year and will eventually become great.
So, my question for you is simple. Which group are you in? Are you in the plateau group – stuck in place? Or, are you in the improving group, still moving forward toward greatness?
My philosophy again is simple – to have a vibrant, active life, you need to find a few activities where you dearly want to remain in the improving group so that you continue to take the actions necessary to make that happen. For me, that is teaching. In 48 years, I have never once walked into my classroom when I didn’t want to be a better teacher. I hope you have the same opinion. For those things that are truly meaningful to you, stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.
TEACHING PHILOSOPHY NUMBER THREE
Paul Clikeman and I go to Taco Bell for lunch once each week and we have been doing that for about 15 years. We talk about a lot of things over those tacos but the one consistent theme over the years has been teaching.
If you want to remain in the improving group, find someone who has a similar philosophy as yours, a similar attitude, similar goals. Find a person who thinks deeply about the same things that you think are important. Then, meet on a regular basis and talk. Don’t have an agenda or a check list. Just talk. The conversation will always come back around to topics that you both think are important.
--It is incredibly difficult to improve year after year if all the ideas must come from inside your own head.
--It is hard to do the work necessary if you don’t have a foundation of support.
My third teaching philosophy is a bit more direct – make conversation a scheduled part of your work week. Don’t wait for a formal presentation. Don’t share an occasional glass of wine or beer. Find someone who cares as much as you do and make sure that you have those discussions on a regular basis and not just when there is nothing else better to do.
These three teaching philosophies have been transformative for me. Hopefully, one or two of them might touch you as well.
--There is something in every person that wants to be pushed to be great. View class as a dance where two parties come together and push each other to create something marvelous.
--Most people improve until they plateau but a few continue to improve year after year and go on to greatness. Decide where you want be great and for those things (like teaching) stay out of the plateau group and reside in the improving group.
--Find other people who have the same goals and ambitions that you have and then have very regular conversations with them so you can inspire and push each other to stay in the improving group.
Here is the URL for the actual installation ceremony: