When the Teacher Becomes the Student
by Joe A. Martin, Ed.D.
A relationship expert once said that during an argument, there's usually three sides to every story: his side, her side, and of course, the truth.
This is something we must definitely keep in mind as teachers. As educators (especially professors), we have been accused of having the biggest egos on this side of Mount Rushmore. One of the quickest ways to burn out in education is to refuse to embrace change. Whether we want to admit it or not, life moves and changes constantly.
Students are constantly exposed to material we once never dreamed existed. Ironically, although students are exposed to more, they typically know less and are less mature than the generations before. However, that does not discredit the fact that students still bring a unique perspective to our classroom; it's through their eyes that we can become better teachers.
One of my best strategies for maintaining a high level of motivation in the classroom came as a result of a technique I learned as a stockbroker and sales trainer. Rule #1 in sales is that in order to bring the customer to where you are (your level of understanding), you must first go to where they are (they're current level of understanding). In simple terms, you must know your customer (in this case, your student). This simple principle recharges and rejuvenates my batteries every semester; because the more I know, the more I grow.
Relating this concept to the education arena, you must simply and clearly define your objectives and what you would like to see happen over the course of a semester (or even a brief interaction) with a student, and then you help your students to do the same. In other words, know where YOU want to go, help them find out where THEY want to go, and then come up with a strategy for both of you to get there. In negotiating terms, they call this a win-win solution. Obviously, this strategy can only work if you value the student, and you believe he or she can make you a better teacher.
For instance, during my first three years in education, I quickly realized that what I wanted and what students believe they needed were diametrically opposed to each other. However, after many personal talks with former students, I soon discovered that students weren't as concerned with the subject matter itself as they were with how the subject matter was being taught. They were more concerned with my attitude than the answers I would give them. This was a revelation.
I came to the conclusion that, like a parent, my experience and education dictated that I was qualified to teach them what they needed to know to succeed. However, when it came to how they received the information, I was totally at their mercy. Because, regardless of how good or important the subject matter is, if no one is listening, then no one is learning. It was at that point that I decided to "go to where they were" in order to bring them to where I was.
I met individually and collectively with students to get their perspectives on the class. I asked them about what worked in class and what didn't? I asked them about what they would like to see more or less of? What would they like to see changed (about myself and/or the class)? I asked them if whether or not they would recommend this class to another student, why or why not? I asked them what would make the class more productive and more interesting? These questions can be asked in almost any work environment, for almost any department, not just in the classroom. I asked similar questions of my clients when I was in Corporate America.
All of the input I received, except for the individual meetings, were done anonymously. I can't begin to tell you how important this information has been to my career. But in less than a year after implementing this idea, I was nominated twice for the distinguished teaching award at my school (the youngest ever nominated).
If you want to become a more productive educator in or outside of the classroom, the key is student input -- you must seek it. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again, but expecting different results. If you listen to and solicit feedback from your students, you won't have to repeat the mistakes of the past. So value your students and their input; trust me, they hold the keys to your success.
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