When my wife and I were preparing for our wedding ceremony, someone gave us the following advice: “Make sure to look around. Note who is present, walk slowly, smile.” It was great advice for us because we were young—she was 20, and I 22—and petrified.
The advice applies to teaching.
Teaching has many pressures and high expectations that often prompt us to steamroll through our agenda without noticing the uniqueness of a class, its value and significance. Sure—we can talk abstractly about how much we enjoy teaching and the role that higher ed plays in the democratization of a country, the inspiration we drew from this or that professor. But those are reflective moments. Talking positively in the moment about a class that meets at 1.30 Monday-Wednesday-Friday in Maybank 111 is more difficult. It requires experiential awareness.
I have admired many academics—some for their research, others for their ability to communicate an idea, and still others for what they stood for in my studies. The ones I have admired most for their teaching, however, held one thing in common: they love their time with their students. This is not to say they were naive to students being ridiculous or even dishonest. They had those experiences, too. But gratefulness at being able to work with students dominated their perspectives.
“I love my students!” I heard a professor exclaim the other day, and when I pressed her with “Why?” she was able to offer several contributing factors. It was refreshing to hear, stated in the middle of a busy afternoon on the bricks in the Charleston heat. Her attitude brought to mind the words of one of my favorite classicists of the 20th century, Gilbert Highet, who writes in The Art of Teaching:
Watch [students] and talk to them. Mix with them sometimes off duty. Give them a party now and then, or play games with them. Listen to them, not to eavesdrop, but to understand by learning the random careless rhythm of their chatter, how their emotions and minds really work (34).
How similar this advice is to “Look around.” When you find yourself eager for class to end, remember who made your education most meaningful. When you approach the rostrum of a crowded lecture hall, take a deep breath and watch what students are doing, who they are talking to. When you enter a noisy classroom, stop to listen to the “random careless rhythm.”
Highet, Gilbert. 1951. The Art of Teaching.