Why Professors Need to Work to Inspire Their Students

The following is the latest installment of the Toward Better Teaching advice column. You can pose a question for a future column here.Dear Bonni, How do you help inspire other educators? Sometimes the problem isn't my students—it's my colleagues. If they seem bored or tired, the students pick up on that and then think that all classes are tedious. —Working at a small community collegeOur emotional well-being matters as teachers. Not only because (if we are going to do it well) facilitating the learning of others requires a lot of energy. But also because if we are experiencing feelings that are not conducive to the work of learning, we can inadvertently transfer those emotions to our students—just as they might catch a cold from us if we’re sick.For this month’s episode of EdSurge Live, our monthly video discussion series, Bonni will join us to take your questions about all things teaching innovation. Join us on Tuesday, February 26 at 1 pm PT/4PM ET. Just RSVP here.Daniel Goleman’s research illustrates the way our emotions are contagious. In his book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships (2006), he describes how we humans are hard-wired to connect with one another. Those connections can be a pathway for our emotions to strongly influence another’s, in positive or negative ways.Our emotional well-being matters as teachers."Create Agreement That Emotions MatterThere are certainly still faculty arguing that we need to stay far away from any desire to be an edu-tainer. They argue that it’s not up to professors to worry about whether a teaching approach is working for students, that somehow the burden is on the students to adapt to whatever style of instruction is used. Thankfully, there is a renewed emphasis on how emotions can spark learning. Sarah Cavanaugh, author of The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion (2016), describes how we can energize our students’ learning by heightening curiosity, encouraging mindfulness and capturing learners’ attention. She stresses that “emotions certainly determine many of our motivations, decisions, and behaviors, and the circuits governing both learning and emotion overlap.” Think back to a teacher who had a tremendous impact on you—and there was likely a way that person captivated your imagination or tapped into emotion in some way. Dave Stachowiak (my husband and host of the Coaching for Leaders podcast) shares this story of a class that has stuck with him since high school.On the first day of the chemistry course the teacher provided a routine overview of the syllabus. Then, he casually lit a candle at the front of the room and explained that the most important thing for students to learn in the class, was that things were not always what they seemed. And with that, he picked up the burning candle and popped it in his mouth, and chewed. Then he said “see you tomorrow,” and left the room.Think back to a teacher who had a tremendous impact on you—and there was likely a way that person captivated your imagination or tapped into emotion in some way."
As Dave mentions, his chemistry teacher was not dynamic one hundred percent of the time. “He didn’t need to be,” Dave emphasizes, “because we were always on the edge of our seat.”When students first join the online portion of my Introduction to Business class, they are presented with an introductory video for the course that is meant to mimic the feel of watching an Indiana Jones movie.Like Dave’s teacher, I try to give them the sense that this class is going to be different. My hope is that they see it as an adventure that will help them learn, but also will be a series of experiences we will have together in the process. I work hard on those first impressions to engage students’ sense of encountering the unexpected. My advice is to try to generate some kind of agreement among your fellow faculty members that it is worth it to be purposeful about how to ignite the imagination of your students. Raise the Collective Self-AwarenessI have been teaching in higher education for 15 years now. Not once have I ever had a professor confess that they perceive themselves as boring. Yet, I remain convinced that there are those who do not possess the capacity for drawing learners in and gaining their attention. In Ken Bain’s longitudinal study of how superb post-secondary educators approach their teaching, he asserts the importance of attaining and maintaining students’ attention. Bain writes in What the Best College Teachers Do (2004): “They consciously try to get students’ attention with some provocative act, question, or statement.”One of the best ways I have ever observed of raising one’s self-awareness is by using video or audio recording as feedback. My first professional job out of college was teaching computer classes. The person I reported to handed me a cassette tape as I was headed out of work one day. It was a recording of me teaching that day. As I listened, I immediately identified phrases I was saying repetitively that were distracting. It was painful to listen to—but it provided me with incredibly powerful feedback that has stayed with me for decades to come. A tool like Swivl can help with video and audio recording feedback. Even if you do not ultimately decide to invest in a product made specifically for that purpose, knowing more about how video can transform our teaching is helpful. This video series with Jim Knight (a senior research associate at the University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning) conveys how videos can “eliminate perceptual errors and allow for teachers and coaches to refer to real evidence of practice.” Acknowledge and RedirectThe work of teaching is one of the hardest things I have ever done. When my colleagues want to vent about the challenges they are encountering, I hope to be a good listener for them. However, if too much of the conversation seems to be about student shaming, I do try to redirect to something more positive. It is a delicate balance to know when we just need a person who can relate to our frustrations and when we really need to focus our attention back on more productive and life-giving thoughts.When we focus on increasing our collective capacity to serve our students well, we leverage the best of what a community of teachers has to offer."Christopher Emdin, author of For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood (2017), epitomizes this sentiment when he writes:“The kind of teacher you will become is directly related to the kind of teachers you associate with. Teaching is a profession where misery does more than just love company—it recruits, seduces, and romances it. Avoid people who are unhappy and disgruntled about the possibilities for transforming education. They are the enemy of the spirit of the teacher.” When we focus on increasing our collective capacity to serve our students well, we leverage the best of what a community of teachers has to offer.