I believe the best teachers are those who set high standards and work hard to
help students, in particular by establishing a supportive atmosphere in which
students can learn. I believe that establishing an atmosphere for learning is
the single most important thing a teacher can do to help students learn.
Everything else is secondary. Students must feel comfortable in learning new
material and asking questions. If they do not, the teacher might as well hand
them a textbook and tell them when to show up for exams. Establishing such an
atmosphere is not simply a matter of telling a few good jokes or having cookies
at office hours--to do so, a teacher must be aware that every interaction with a
student is a chance to intimidate or encourage that student, and act
I believe the first step in establishing a good atmosphere for learning is to
uncover student concerns by actively seeking and encouraging student feedback.
Teachers who proceed as though they know what is best for students flatly ignore
the fact that students are individuals who are each having their own problems
learning the material. To this end, I believe in using evaluations and seeking
out student opinions as a course is taught. This, however, need not all be in
the traditional form of student evaluations, as some of this information can
also come from looking at tests and homework problems.
An open, encouraging atmosphere must be maintained to encourage communication
between students and teachers. If, in seeking out student feedback, a teacher
is hostile or shaming, the teacher should not even bother to ask for it, as
students' responses will not reflect their true concerns. I encourage students
in class to show up for my office hours, which are relatively open, so students
may stop by at their convenience to ask questions which they do not feel
comfortable asking in class. I think office hours represent a unique
opportunity, as this is the only time when teacher and student can communicate
on an individual basis. Furthermore, I am friendly to students who stop by, and
treat them with respect, since going to office hours can be an intimidating
experience, and I do not want to discourage students from seeking help.
Teachers who do establish an open atmosphere will likely receive some negative
comments about their teaching. When I do, I respond to those comments by
adjusting my approach. As the teacher, I cannot plow forward assuming that I
know the technique best suited to presenting an idea to a particular class.
Similarly, I cannot presume that an explanation I give will be as clear to the
students as it is to me. Instead, I try to remain observant, responsive, and
willing to adapt to the needs of the students. When providing an explanation, I
keep in mind that students are not just soaking up facts, but instead are
continually rearranging their way of thinking about a subject, shifting
paradigms continuously throughout the class. Students should be given time to
do this and must not be intimidated out of doing so by responses which shame
them for not knowing the material before they take the course; being responsive
also means being aware of how one's responses affect one's students. I have
never been impressed by teachers who set lofty goals but are indifferent to
their students, and I have been similarly unimpressed by teachers who are
friendly, but seem to win the favor of their students by demanding little of
them. The classroom environment must be one where students are encouraged to
excel, and where their individual needs are addressed.
I think alternative methods of teaching can also be used to respond to student
needs. The change of pace provided by such techniques maintains student
interest, and provides other cognitive benefits as well. I do not think that a
single perfect teaching method has been invented, so in the meantime, I try to
be flexible and adapt my methods to the material I present. I ask my students
daily to open themselves up to change, so I, too, should be open to it.
Realistically, I can only provide an environment for learning, giving prompt
feedback and encouraging students when they need it--the students must integrate
new material and relate it to their personal experience. In fact, I think
students must do the hardest part of learning themselves. Regardless of whether
or not a teacher establishes a good atmosphere for doing so, students must take
a great deal of responsibility for learning the material. In the long run, this
will serve them well, as they will eventually have to motivate themselves and
learn on their own.
I think it is important to keep this in mind when considering teaching goals.
What people regard as basic information in a field will change quickly.
Theories, because they give structure to this information, are more valuable,
but will eventually need to be replaced. However, the abilitiy to develop and
communicate one's ideas will always be valuable. If I do not develop this
ability in my students, by providing an environment in which it can grow, I have
taught them nothing, because, in time, everything else will become obsolete.
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