As I teach my way through grad school, and potentially work my way up to a professorship, it’s important that I stay critical of how I conduct myself as a teacher. There are countless books and materials on effective teaching methods, but I’ve found the best way to truly develop my own personal teaching praxis is simply through actually teaching.
Now working on my third course, I’ve noticed that in many ways I’m the ‘lenient teacher’ — I laugh a lot during class, I’m quick to give my students extra time to turn in assignments, and I often give students benefit of the doubt when grading. Although there are some merits to being a stricter teacher, and I have no problem being stern when I need to, there are several distinct reasons why I make it a point to be a relatively lenient teacher.
First and foremost, I want my students to feel comfortable in my classroom — I want them to feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, work through their confusion with me, and ask any questions they have (especially when they think they’re ‘stupid questions’).
The last thing I want is for my students to not understand the material, but be too afraid to ask any questions about it. Students are coming into courses with a wide range of educational backgrounds, learning abilities, skillsets, and life situations. I make it a goal to not assume much, if anything at all, about my students’ knowledge around the course material; that way even students far behind what the course demands can feel supported and hopefully catch up to the rest of the class.
I also make it a point to acknowledge that no matter the environment, some students just won’t feel comfortable asking questions during class, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I make sure to be readily available over email, and to be open to meeting both during and outside of my office hours, so that my students’ needs are actually met in a way that accommodates their schedules and what they feel comfortable with. It requires some extra labor, but it’s a labor I’m willing to expend for the benefit of my students.
However much I might wish my students to care about the course material, I have to be realistic that for many students, especially in required classes, the course might be relatively low on their priorities. They might be more concerned with the elective classes they’re actually more interested in, or about a sport team or club they’re a part of, or the jobs they’re balancing to afford school in the first place.
While I wish my course would be a higher priority for my students, I’m cognizant that it often won’t be, and I shouldn’t take that as an attack on me as a teacher or a person.
In my teaching philosophy, grades are a way to ensure students hold themselves accountable to studying the material and trying their best. For most assignments, I try to only take off points to highlight gaps in their understandings of the course material. When I do find it necessary to take off points, I try to also include some feedback to help guide the student in working through the problems later on their own. The goal is for the students to learn and grow, not to be worried about whether they’re going to get enough points to pass.
Additionally, if I were to take off too many points, it’d be too easy for my students to develop a defeatist mindset — “If I’m going to get all these points marked off anyway, why should I even put that much effort into it?” I’ve noticed this in several students, as well as myself at times, and it’s a dangerous territory I’d like to avoid as much as possible with my students. I want them to feel supported in their learning, not defeated.
Accounting for the Unknown
One thing I have to remain aware of is that there are countless components of my students’ lives that I’ll never be aware of. All of these components work together to influence how my students perform, from their exam scores to their conduct in class. I need to do my best not to assume why a student might be underperforming or even misbehaving.
For example, say a student completely fails a pop quiz. Could it be because they were on their phone all class rather than paying attention to the lecture? Or could it be that someone they care about is in the hospital, and they weren’t able to sleep well the night before? Or could they have a learning disability I don’t know about, and are struggling to find adequate tutoring that works well for their needs? There’s no way for me to know exactly why some of my students might not be performing as well as I wish they would, but as a teacher it’s my responsibility to support them in their learning regardless.
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Developing a sound teaching praxis is crucial as I move through academia and potentially towards a professorship. Especially as someone with identities and backgrounds vastly underrepresented in academia, in STEM* in particular, it’s key that I learn how to best support all of my students so that none are excluded from the joys that can come from learning. Even more so, as someone in higher education, I have to recognize that in many ways I’m an educator even when I’m not formally teaching, and should work to uphold my praxis both inside and outside of the classroom.