Originally posted Jan. 8, 2012 on BestThinking.com
I appreciate this title is a bit like the pot calling the kettle black, but bear with me for a little bit. We’re boring…if you don’t know it, you should. I’m not talking to the socially incompetent academics or the classic “talk to the board” teachers out there; I’m talking to everyone who has the job of teaching in front of a class of students. You may have decent teaching scores; you may have a shelf littered with teaching awards; you may even have a chilli pepper next to your name on http://www.ratemyprofessor.com. However, you’re boring compared to other things in the students’ lives when you walk into the lecture theatre.
So what’s my point? Simply this: for some reason, some teachers, work ourselves up into a frenzy of stress to make our lectures so fun for our students that they place its importance above everything else. We try to, some how, compete for their limited attention, in order to perhaps make a difference. But, in my mind, this is a waste of energy and time.It doesn’t matter if you’re teaching first year undergraduates or a doctoral class, it is unlikely you are the most exciting thing in their lives. Even if you force them laugh with your cringe-worthy jokes, as is my strategy, or regail them with war-stories from your past life in the field, you are unlikely to be as exciting as them enjoying time with their family, friends, or alcohol. Don’t get me wrong, you may be the most interesting lecturer in your University, perhaps even your field, but you’re still boring compared to other things that the students could be doing.
Students don’t want you to be the ‘coolest’ thing in their lives. They have fun things to do and far cooler people to hang out with. You are there to facilitate their learning. If you need to be lighthearted, fun or relaxed to do that, then so be it. If you need to be forthright, dry or stern, then that’s fine too. As long as their learning, and not your ego, is at the heart of what you do. Being exciting is secondary to being good at your job as a teacher. Students don’t look at you and think “I’d rather be learning from them, than hanging out with my friends or going on holiday”. No, they think “this is the best class I’m taking this year” or “I really enjoy this class”. They compare you against other studies and other lecturers, not other pursuits that make up their, hopefully, well rounded lives.
Good teachers engage their students. You might need to be fun to do this. Equally, you could be interesting. You could be knowledgeable. You could be passionate. You could be charismatic. All are valid paths to being ‘less boring’ but it is unreasonable to suggest you would be so important to the students that they are willing to drop everything in their lives to attend your class, complete their assignment or study for their finals.
One final note before you launch into writing your retorts as to why you’re not boring; think of the converse. If you organised everything in your life, as a professor, from the most fun to the least, I suspect teaching would not be near the top. Perhaps a class you teach has the most interesting group of students this year, but is it as much fun as spending time with family, reading a new book, watching an old movie or writing your revisions for the latest journal article? Students not near the top of your list, so why do you demand that you be at the top of theirs? For the time you spend with them, you should give them your undivided attention, and and they should do the same in return (I have no time for people texting their friends in my class – leave the room or wait till the break). Take your egos elsewhere, you’re not that important to them…
So, stop worrying. Stop trying to come up with kooky ways to make your class more fun than the beach or ski field. It’ll never happen. Your students are adults and have a responsibility for their own learning. Don’t bore them to death when they come to your class, but you don’t need them to follow you around like the pied piper or salivate outside the lecture theatre, desperate to learn from you. You will never trump the other people the students want be with in their lives. But if you do come across a student who would rather spend time with you than any other person, then perhaps a little professional distance would be in order 😉