I think that good teaching is a lot like good parenting. Both require a plan, but both rely on flexibility.
Both are set to help people succeed, but both recognize that sometimes people fail and that that is OK. Both require participants to make hard decisions that look past the immediate present to a more distant future. And it is recognizing that all of these elements are equally important to making teaching successful that, in fact, makes teaching successful.
What do I mean specifically? Obviously a plan is needed for a class to be successful. Without some sort of plan, and some sort of well-considered plan, there would be chaos – according to the second law of thermodynamics, everything is moving toward disorder naturally, so a plan is definitely needed.
But then things come up—not all classes are the same just like not all students are the same, so good teaching requires some flexibility. Yes, keep the overall goal of the course in mind, but change up the approach or take some extra time to work through a particularly sticky topic or let the class’ interest fine tune the direction of the course.
Likewise, it is unrealistic to believe that every outcome will be immediately good. Sometimes students, like children, fail. But failure is a part of life too, and, in fact, can be something good.
During one of my very first years at Temple, I had to give a graduate student a C, which, because it was her second, meant that she was kicked out of the program. It was one of the toughest decisions that I had to make, but it had a surprisingly happy ending. The student was forced to come up with plan B, but it turned out that she loved Plan B – teaching middle and high school – and she ended up emailing me to thank me for making that hard decision. I am not trivializing the pain that failure brings or to say that all failure is good, but I am trying to say that not all failure is bad, and it is an important life lesson, as, again, life is full of challenges, obstacles and hard decisions.
Good teaching really does involve seeing beyond the here-and-now. It can feel “easier” to give more points or pass all students, and it is easier, but it is not the right decision in the long run.
Deborah Stull is an assistant professor of Biology at Temple University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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