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5 Things I Wish People Understood About Teaching

By day, I’m a mild-mannered professor of English. That’s been my full-time job for the last 17 years, though I’ve been teaching at universities since I was 22 years old. In more than 30 years of experience, there’s really only one thing I’ve learned for certain: many people do not understand what teaching actually involves.

Today, I’m addressing a few of the misconceptions I’ve encountered about teaching over the years. Specifically, I’m going to talk about being a university professor–my particular area of expertise.

Professors don’t take pleasure in torturing students.

Nothing makes me feel worse than a class full of students who aren’t doing well. It makes me question everything I think I know. And nothing makes me feel better than a class filled with students who are earning high grades. (You might ask, “If that makes you feel so good, why not just give everybody an A?” The answer is that I’d know those grades were dishonest. That would not make me feel good.)

I’m not trying to make life difficult when I give students a challenging assignment. I know there are easier ways to teach. I could lecture, spew facts, ask my students to memorize and regurgitate those facts. But I also know this approach won’t teach anybody anything, because learning is not about memorization. It’s about figuring stuff out. That, by definition, is a challenge.

Punishment doesn’t lead to learning.

Occasionally, when I’m frustrated, I’ll complain about a student’s behavior. Because I teach English, I often get the suggestion that “You should make your student write a 10-page paper on the importance of avoiding plagiarism!” (Or whatever the problem in question happens to be.)

Sure. Because using writing as a punishment will help students learn to enjoy it a little more. Which is, you know, part of my job.

Negative reinforcement rarely works as a teaching tool. That’s why I don’t tell the coaches of our university teams when their athletes are acting up in class, as they often suggest we should. Yes, those coaches could make their athletes run laps. Would that solve the problem in my classroom? Maybe. But it wouldn’t teach those students to respect my authority. It certainly wouldn’t teach them that being praised feels a whole lot better than being a jerk.

Instead of penalizing students for mistakes, I give them the chance to do the right thing–and praise them when they do. On exams, I try to provide opportunities for those students to show me what they know. I reward them for what they’re able to demonstrate. The natural consequence is that they aren’t rewarded for the performance they can’t yet give.

But no one is punished for anything.  They’re encouraged to try harder next time.

Professors do lots of jobs outside of the classroom.

In addition to leading my classes, I’m also the academic adviser for an assigned number of English majors. I’m director of the program in Women’s Studies, which means I advise an additional group of students (those who are getting a minor in Women’s Studies) and plan events on campus in support of that program. For three years, I was Director of General Education. That meant I was in charge of making sure my university’s Gen Ed requirements were being followed and evaluated. (I did that on top of teaching and directing Women’s Studies.) I’ve also served as the chairperson of my department, which involves everything from managing personnel disputes to writing annual reports. And then there are the committees on which faculty members serve, which oversee everything from grade disputes to admissions decisions.

Professors wear many hats. The fact that I’m not in my office eight hours a day doesn’t mean I went home at noon. It probably means I’m in yet another tedious meeting.

Professors don’t get summers off.

It’s true we’re under contract for 9 months each year, though most of us ask to have our salaries stretched over 12 months. Some of us teach summer school, which is basically like working overtime, to make a little extra money. But even if we’re not teaching, we’re planning new classes. Or updating those we’ve taught before (and doing all the reading and syllabus development this requires.) Sometimes we’re reading about new teaching strategies and trying to figure out how to make them work for us. Or we’re doing the research and writing we have no time for during the academic year–things on which our tenure and promotions rely, in spite of that.

It would not be accurate to say I’m working every day over the summer, but I’m certainly not taking a 3-month vacation.

Teaching is really complicated.

Every course I teach has a syllabus. Every syllabus includes course policies that lay out the best case scenario for the semester. And every course is full of students who are complex human beings.

Should I change a course policy every time I encounter a student for whom that policy is unworkable? Let’s say I have a student who’s going through a divorce and custody battle. Let’s say that custody battle requires him to take his son to school in the morning. Perhaps his son is acting out in response to the stress at home. Thus, the student in question tends to run a little late in the morning.

Should I tell this student to drop my class, since he can’t be on time every day, and impede his education? (Who will be helped by that? Certainly not my student. Not his young son.) Should I tell every other student in the course that it’s perfectly okay to be late to class? Or should I quietly support the one student who’s struggling and be more flexible about late arrivals than I normally would–even if that means I look like a pushover?

If the only thing people understood about teaching is that it’s an interaction among human beings, my job would be a whole lot easier.




  • Reply grace March 9, 2016 at 12:56 pm

    my little brother is in his first year as a full professor, and i’ve never seen a busier person in all my life! i have a new respect for all of my professors and all professors in general!

    • Reply Pam March 9, 2016 at 12:57 pm

      It’s a job that not many people do, so very few people understand what it entails. Thanks for your words of support!

    Go ahead, tell me what you think.