When I started teaching, I had phenomenal mentors. I could ring up Paul, an English prof, and inquire about handling a student’s lie, and he’d help me identify the options. I could share my student evals with Jerry, a chemist, and he’d help me sort out the lessons in them. Bill . . . well, Bill was my immediate colleague, and I could go to Bill with just about anything. Here are three of their gems.
Sometimes it’s best to just present the evidence and wait silently. This advice arose when a student forged my signature on their registration card. Boy, was I angry; my first instinct was to dress down the student. I even considered telling him to find another advisor. Paul gave me a different option: “Have the student come in, hand him the registration card, and wait.”
This was brilliant. The student confessed immediately and explained how I’d not been in my office, he needed a particular class, and he had a cross-country meet and that was his only chance to get my signature. He was embarrassed and contrite and apologetic. We talked about how waiting until the last minute was not a good strategy and identified other options he might have chosen (getting another faculty member to sign in my stead, leaving the card on my door with a note). The student learned an important lesson, and I strengthened a relationship rather than damaged it. Later in his undergraduate career, he did research with me during which he repeatedly demonstrated the ability to make better decisions.
While the particulars of this situation would not arise in the era of online registration, I have used the present-and-wait strategy for handling cases of suspected plagiarism, investigating claims of unequal workloads in group projects, and addressing persistent disruptive behavior in class. Of course, it doesn’t always work, but starting with the option for the student to explain has meant personal growth on their part more often than not. It’s also saved me from a lot of misdirected anger and accusations.
My job is to provide a range of pedagogical diversity so that everyone has days they feel empowered and days they feel challenged. When I began doing less lecturing and asking my students to do more engaged, active learning, some of my them made their displeasure known. “I prefer it when you lecture.” “I don’t like doing things in class.” “It’s like you’re making us do all the work; that’s your job.” “How is this getting me ready for med school?” One semester, student annoyance came out in the kind of hurtful and disparaging way that makes us all dread reading course evaluations.
In the grip of imposter syndrome, I sought out Jerry, who of course pointed to the positive comments. “Many of your students appreciate the diverse approaches,” he offered.
“Yeah, but nobody complains when I lecture all the time. How am I going to get tenure with these negative comments?” I replied.
“The way I think about it,” Jerry said, “is that any pedagogical approach is hitting the sweet spot for some of my students, but if I do the same thing every day, the same students are advantaged. If I switch up how I’m teaching, then everyone has both the chance to be comfortable and the chance to stretch.”
Again, this was brilliant. Not only was there an improved learning argument for active learning, but there was also an equity argument for diversifying my teaching strategies. This was an entirely different way for me to think about the value of diverse active learning strategies. Additionally, I was making my students more agile learners. These insights gave me the language I needed to counter their complaints. I even preempted them by discussing the advantages for multiple modes of learning in my syllabus. As importantly, it gave me a philosophical grounding for addressing the negative comments in student evaluations during my performance reviews.
“Say more about that” is a powerful teaching tool. Early in my career, not understanding a student’s question always caused me angst. I’d hear the question and think, What? I didn’t have a tool kit for unpacking the student’s confusion, so I’d bluff my way through an answer knowing I couldn’t possibly be addressing the issue. This led to a fear of turning to a class and asking “Are there any questions?”—which led to rarely asking my students whether they had questions.
Bill, with whom I was team-teaching one semester, noted the absence: “Amy, do you know you never ask students whether they have questions?”
“Really?” I replied. After 10 minutes of conversation, I conceded the point. “But I don’t really know how to answer some of their questions. I don’t even know what they’re asking.”
“Ah,” Bill said. “Those are the very questions that are most important. When a student asks a question you don’t understand, it’s because they have a fundamental misunderstanding somewhere. When that happens, it’s not about answering the question. It is about finding the source of the confusion.”
“But if the student can’t ask a question, how am I going pinpoint the misunderstanding?”
“You keep them talking,” Bill replied. “Ask the student to say more. Quite often, the student corrects themselves in the process, or another student will perceive the source of confusion and jump in. When neither of those things happens, you ask the student to identify the diagram or text or part of their notes that is leading to the question.”
This simple phrase became a mainstay in my classroom. Yes, I still got questions I couldn’t sort through, but most of the time, the student’s elaboration helped me see where the misunderstanding was. This phrase was also useful when I asked a question of the class and got an answer that wasn’t correct. Bill had given me exactly the tool I needed to engage my students in dialogue—the kind that made my students more comfortable about taking a risk.
Part of magic of these gems is how they shifted my focus from me as teacher to my students as learners. Another part is that each of these relatively simple reframings laid a foundation for my own development and growth, which is of course what phenomenal mentors bring about.
Amy B. Mulnix, PhD, currently is the interim associate secretary in the national Phi Beta Kappa office. Prior to that, she served as founding director of the Faculty Center at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she supported faculty across the arc of their careers and the scopes of their academic identities.