The first class I ever taught was a ceramics class at a summer camp for children. I was 17 years old and had no previous experience teaching. My students were all very young and tiny, but what they lacked in size they made up for in number. I quickly lost control and humbly accepted my defeat from pint-sized pupils by letting chaos reign. My second teaching experience, Spanish Linguistics at the University of Georgia, faired a little better. But I still felt intimidated and overwhelmed; nervous that things would get out of hand or away from me. To maintain control, I implemented a fairly strict set of no-nonsense policies: no-late-work, and no-speaking-English-during-class, and no-asking-questions-that-could-be-answered-by-reading-the-syllabus-- to show I meant business.
That did not go so great.
I quickly learned that my students did not respond well to this approach at all. They felt intimidated and uncomfortable speaking in class. Participation and morale were incredibly low. So, I had to adjust. To find balance in having strong class management in place without being too authoritarian so that my students felt encouraged to participate.
So how does one find this balance?
- Be Yourself
When I first walked into a university classroom I had an image in my head of what a college professor SHOULD be like. I thought I was playing a role and in order to follow the script I had to be severe and serious. In reality, there is no script and there is more than one way to be a good teacher. Teaching style can and should be more of a reflection of an instructor’s personality. If you’re not a terribly serious person, don’t try to stifle yourself to fit the “professor” image. A professional attitude is, of course, always necessary but let your personality traits and interests come through in your classroom. It will make the experience and you more approachable and authentic to your students.
- Set Boundaries and Expectations (with Compassion)
It is very important to set classroom expectations early on and to hold students accountable for meeting these expectations. It is also important to treat your students as individuals and to understand when exceptions need to be made. Each student has his/her own personal story, challenges, strengths, and learning preferences. These differences need to be considered and where appropriate be given a little leeway.
When I first began teaching I feared that if I was too nice my students might take advantage of me and my kindness. I thought that in order to avoid “spoon feeding” my students throughout their academic careers I had to be harsh and uncompromising. Treating students as human beings who deserve respect and compassion, however, has been a far more effective strategy to ensure their efforts in my class. Giving respect and treating them like capable adults only causes them to respect ME more. And when students respect their teacher, they are more likely to care about the subject they are there to learn.
- Get to Know Your Students & Allow Them to Get to Know You
It is also important to show your students that YOU are a human being. At first, I thought sharing anything personal with my students would somehow make me lose authority or at the very least would distract them from the subject at hand. However, as I became more comfortable in the classroom I began to share my personal experiences of travel and foreign language learning with my students. I quickly learned that this made the subject material more interesting and relatable. When I tell my students about my family and my hobbies, they become more interested in engaging with me, which only increases their comfort level and participation in the classroom.
- Don’t be so Teacher-Centric
Let go of the need to always be the person at the front and center of the classroom. I know, we’re professors, it’s hard! But we don’t always have to be 100% in charge of what happens. Acknowledging that my students are capable of directing their own learning makes the class feel more like a collaborative group experience, as opposed to a teacher-focused lecture hall. This makes students feel more relaxed and improves the class experience.
Remember, there are a lot of great ways to connect with your students. Managing a classroom is a little bit art and a little bit science; you have to implement and adjust as it makes sense for you and your students. Just keep in mind that balance between policies and students is often the key to creating a happy, cohesive classroom.