If They’re not Learning, I’m not Teaching

I loved university teaching, loved interactions with my fellow faculty. It was only the students that I didn’t like.

It seemed they did as little work as possible. They didn’t turn stuff in on time, or at all. Slept in class. Arrived late or left early, without apology. Chatted during class. Didn’t read the materials. Rarely entered into a discussion or asked a question. How had they survived high school?

Some of my fellow faculty stereotyped students, mostly unfairly—for example, the footballers. Sit in the back row with their athletic caps pulled down over their eyes. Never contribute in class. Miss one-third of the class sessions. If you ask them something, they say, “Could you repeat the question?” They feel embarrassed if they get above a C grade. Another stereotype—“The Edina girls.” These don’t arrive on campus with suitcases; they bring U-hauls. Blond-haired and blue eyed, they strive for “the look”—quaffed hair, flawless wardrobe, sensual dresses. Smile a lot. Come from wealthier, conservative families. Have a robust sense of entitlement—they assume success is their due. They try not to ask questions in class, are careful not to show too much interest in learning. They don’t wish to appear smarter or more interested than the footballers.

Also, student comments annoyed me:

  • My cat died.
  • I need to miss a week of classes because my family’s going to Disneyworld.
  • My baseball team has to leave two days early for spring break so I’ll miss your midterm.
  • I left my assignment in my other folder.
  • I’ve missed several classes but I got notes from a friend, so I’m good.
  • My WiFi went down.
  • I have a big test in another class so I couldn’t study for yours.
  • I got 79%. Could you round it up to a B?
  • That exam question wasn’t on the study guide
  • Could I have two weeks to turn in my missing assignments?
  • My family was on vacation last week. Did I miss anything?
    [I usually replied, “Oh no, nothing! We never do anything important in class.”]

Student reciprocated my dislike. They gave me dismal evaluations, and some even added nasty comments—“Material is too hard. Covers too much material. Hard to follow. The exams are unfair. Doesn’t know how to teach. Don’t like the way he dresses. Worst class I’ve taken here.” I tried working harder, changing things, but student evaluations remained the same. This shocked me because I was such a good teacher.

I was prepared for teaching. I had studied anthropology for six years, spent ten years in Latin America, conducted field research on the Yanomamo Indians of Venezuela and the Amish of Pennsylvania. I dressed all tweedy, wore a close-cropped beard. I labored over my brilliant lectures. I was a legend in my own mind.

But the miserable evaluations continued, and my stress level only increased. I begin to have nightmares. I forget to go to class. I can’t find the classroom, or worse, the bathrooms. I enter the classroom with no idea what to say. I have forgotten my notes and am completely unprepared. I arrive at the podium only partially clothed.

Every semester I looked for better evaluations, always to be disappointed. I felt humiliated when they passed me over for promotion. I thought, If only I had no students, I would have the perfect job!

I began to worry about my job. The dean told me, “Sit in other teachers’ classes; watch what they do.” This helped, but I couldn’t see what they were doing differently. I attended teaching workshops. I even talked to a drama coach. When I videotaped myself, I was shocked—I was as bland as unsugared oatmeal.

In the midst of this crisis, the dean suggested that I focus less on my material and more on my students, a suggestion I bitterly resented. Focus on the students? Had I not set the table with all delicious foods? Why was it my fault that the students weren’t eating?

But he told me: “Don’t wait for the end of the semester to get student evaluations; you need to get their feedback early.” Looking back, this was a gamechanger. In fact, rather than resenting feedback, I began to see it as a tool for course-correction in my teaching. Instead of talking at the students I began listening to them, trying to discern the impediments to their learning, teaching in terms of their interests and understandings. I even organized a student focus group to critique and comment on the class. The books I devoured on pedagogy all pointed me toward more student-focused teaching. That one thing that I hated, the one thing I criticized the most, I was now doing—I was focusing on the students.

Slowly, I became a better teacher and my evaluations improved. I began to realize that students weren’t angry with me. Rather, their unhappiness usually arose from their own situation—lack of maturity, too many commitments, family struggles. I learned about their parents divorcing, handicapped siblings, deaths in the family, even the death of a pet cat. So many things hampered their class performance.

It took a long time, but I learned how to teach. I learned the need to listen, the need for humility, patience, trust, even love. Now, rather than avoiding students and criticizing them, I would roam the halls searching them out, looking for them outside the classroom.

One day walking the hall I met one of my students, a Nicaraguan woman named Juanita. I spontaneously asked her, “Could I pray for you?”

She said yes, and knelt before me! “Dr. Hurd, my parents have just been deported back to Nicaragua. My brother are the only ones left here to run the family business. And the doctor just told me I have colon cancer.”

In those days, I carried with me a small bottle of anointing oil. There, with public eyes watching, I anointed her forehead with the sign of the cross and prayed for her. Years later, we are still in touch and she refers back to when I prayed for her.

So that’s how I learned to be student-centered. That’s how I learned to teach.

2 thoughts on “If They’re not Learning, I’m not Teaching

  1. I recognize those steps toward good teaching… I went through similar ones… I think we all do.
    And I am still learning today, as I teach online.


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