Fair?

As a teacher, I was not a natural “lecturer.” And then, my first teaching career, teaching English as a Second Language, I learned that people learn skills — like language — through practice not by someone standing in front of the classroom divesting him/herself. It was best to “run” a “student-centered” classroom where the teacher facilitated learning. That meant class projects, group work, teacher checking in with students as they learn, conferencing with students. Great for me. I never learned much from lecture classes and was happy not to lecture. BUT, in 1999, when my career shifted to teaching writing to university students, I had to learn to lecture. And why?

Most people learn from lecture, from being told something. It’s a very efficient way of transmitting information. The thing is, writing is not exactly a “content.” Writing is a skill, but content is part of it. Once the content is transmitted, the students work, but at a certain point, usually the first two weeks of classes and whenever new material is introduced, a teacher has to lecture. I was so bad at it, and I wanted to get better FAST. Teaching at the university had been my DREAM, and I wanted to keep living it.

Some years earlier, I’d sat in on some classes with a friend — Introduction to Comparative Religions — taught by a guy named Dr. Mueller. My friend thought Dr. Mueller was the BEST TEACHER IN THE WHOLE ENTIRE WORLD. After I’d seen him lecture a few times, so did I. Searching for a way to improve my ability to lecture, I suddenly remembered Dr. Mueller. I decided to sit in on his classes for the first few days of the semester. In the back. He wouldn’t notice me and I had to figure out how he did what he did.

Freshman composition and Introduction to Comparative Religions might not seem to have much in common, but from a student perspective, they have a LOT in common. They satisfy requirements. Dr. Mueller’s job and mine were the same; get the kids interested enough that they show up for class and do decent work and — inshallah — learn something and develop some enthusiasm for the subject. It didn’t really matter that composition and philosophy are miles apart for the interested student; our “market” was the UN-interested student in his/her first semester at university.

Tough sell.

Dr. Mueller was energetic, enthusiastic, captivating. He didn’t cling to the lectern, but moved around the room and spoke to the students. He asked interesting rhetorical questions and not-so-rhetorical questions. He related to the students’ actual lives. He was older than I was by maybe a decade, so it wasn’t his youth that appealed to his students (they are funny that way). It was his way of lecturing.

I sat in that class — and another of his introductory classes — for the first three lectures for, I dunno, maybe four semesters? I saw that he gave essentially exactly the same lectures every semester. I understood that this was theater, not lecturing, per se. A-HA! His goal was less about transmitting information and more about getting students curious. After that? I knew what would happen after that. They would start TEACHING THEMSELVES. Teacher as facilitator. I could do that.

The content of one of those lectures has stuck with me. Dr. Mueller made up a situation in which (as I remember) a guy (or girl, depending) got dumped for someone else. “It’s not fair!” cried Dr. Mueller in the role of the dumpee! Then, “Is it?” He’d look at a student for a response. “C’mon, maybe you’ve been in that situation. No? How about you?” He’d pick on someone else. “Is it fair?” The whole class would be engaged, wondering what was going to happen. Invariably the kid would shake his/her head.

“Fair is for soccer,” pronounced Dr. Mueller, returning to the front of the class, reassuming his professorial role, through body-language telling his class “OK kids, here’s the thing you need to remember from this play-acting. “Life isn’t fair. It doesn’t have a referees or rules. And if it did? Would YOU be the person who made the rules?” Heads shake all around the classroom. “No,” Dr. Mueller would say, softly. “Probably not.” Then he’d make his serious point, “Our sense of justice is centered on us, on what we want. If we get what we want, it’s fair. If not, it’s not fair. Is THAT fair?”

Years went by, and I was lecturing well on my own. Then, one day, I was teaching a class in the building where Dr. Mueller had his office. I came out of my classroom just as he was going down the stairs. Our eyes met. Of course, I knew who he was. He only knew he’d seen me before and felt he should say something. He said, “Well, hello! How have you been?”

I’m 100% sure he didn’t get the full message in my response, “Great, thank you!”

How did I do? Here’s my report card. My students wanted to make sure all my classes filled so they put up advertising all over campus. Business Majors do what they do. IDS 290 was Basic Business Communication.

32 thoughts on “Fair?

  1. Teaching is all about connecting with your students. That was a smart thing to do, spend time watching what a successful professor does! I’m always learning from my colleagues.

  2. What a great way to learn how to lecture — I think now that many teachers are taught what to teach, but not how — just as we are not taught many others of the basic skills of life! I also think that this trains teachers to forget the importance of such things as basic arithmetic (why is it important to know how to multiply, for example), geography (where is Ukraine?), history (the holocaust?), and so many other things that our generation learned before middle school!

    • I think we learned all that so early because it was close to us in history and our teachers had lived through it, maybe been there. Now, I wonder if it just doesn’t seem like something so far far away. I don’t know. 😦

  3. You could not have learned from a better person and had a better endorsement from the students who learned from you. Well done

  4. “Just look at her, you know she has to be cool.” I once knew a great lecturer and lecture was theatre. He stood at a lectern and read announcements. He then walked across the stage as he removed his glasses, leaned against the proscenium arch, sucked thoughtfully on the temple of his glasses for a few seconds, and then he was off! He was lecturing on the European Revolution of 1848. Suddenly we were transported and experiencing life on the streets of a European city. We were in a time machine. The students who took his class for credit wrote furiously, trying to get it all down. Those who audited just sat back and drank it all in. He never looked at notes and never slowed down. If class ended and he wasn’t finished, no one moved until he was. The glasses went back on and he transformed back into a mild-mannered academic.

      • I forgot. He did occasionally stroll back to the lectern, pick up a notecard, read a quotation from original source material, then back to the arch without breaking stride or pausing. Did he memorize his lectures? Did he just know the material cold so he could ad lib for an hour a day? I don’t know, but he knew exactly when he wanted to read an excerpt. I guess it’s like watching a great actor disappear into a role.

        • If you know what you’re teaching and what outcome you hope for from your students it’s easy and fun. For my composition classes I taught a lot of “content” — and the two times I got to teach literature. It’s sounds to me like that prof had a real love for what he was teaching. That’s the light inside the “act.”

  5. I taught elementary ed honestly only for the vacation time and then I didn’t like being stuck in the classroom all day…plus when I had my own child, I didn’t want to be around other kids for more hours than I was with him, so I became a SAHM and used all my teaching skills on him. In fact, we just chatted about that a while ago, cos I do the same teaching with his kids now. Everything is a learning experience, I told him. So…I’m glad others like to teach fresh minds. Funny thing is that my son’s a professor and he loves it so apple fell FAR from this tree!

      • Any excuse for a hug is a good one! He teaches honors at UW, a big honor for him haha. I think it’s SOOO important too, but it wasn’t for me. I just didn’t care about anything but the end of the day. Def NOT who should be a teacher, right? My grandson’s K teacher is veryVERY good, perfect for a feral creature like him.

        • That’s really an honor. Not everyone is a teacher — and I sure wasn’t born to be someone’s mom. I mean they live with you 24/7, you have to teach them to use the toilet and how to behave? ALL THE TIME??? I was a step mom and got to practice, but sooner or later they would leave — much as I loved them it was relentless. And they weren’t even feral! 😀

  6. Marvelous! I’ve seen so many Professor who are brilliant researchers completely bomb in the classroom. Not because they don’t know the material but because they don’t have a clue how to teach! There are so many credentials required to teach K-12 but zero to teach at the college level!

    • Not quite zero. I had teacher training seminars in graduate school. That depends, a little on a person’s course of study. But the main thing is that by college people know how to learn. As I learned trying to teach art to the kids up my alley, that’s not easy. They did not yet know how to learn and I did not have the training to meet them at that point in their need. I don’t think I could have taught children.

      College age kids are a different animal. There it’s mostly a matter of being sure they remain engaged. If they are engaged, they will learn. A lot of professors don’t even bother to engage their students. I had plenty of those when I was in school. I think of that as intellectual arrogance, a disrespect for their students and maybe even no real interest in what they’re teaching, more than not having the training. Professors who really love their subject will transmit that love at the very least and that’s engaging. BUT the research driven professors are often uncomfortable in the classroom. Poor guys!

      • Some of my favorite teachers were in community college. They were there to teach – not to publish, not to do research, not to earn tenure, not to sit back and coast after earning tenure. I mean not to disparage all (yes, some 😉 of my university professors, but to praise my community college instructors.

        • Community college teachers are REAL teachers. My boss at the university sought me out BECAUSE I’d taught community college successfully for a long time. At community college you know you’re there because the kids need to learn the stuff and most of them wouldn’t be there if they were the usual high achievers in high school. I loved it. I was once doing a role play with my students (composition) to introduce The Allegory of the Cave. We were all acting like we were chained to the wall. A student was outside “in the light”. He had to drag us out against our will so we could see what we couldn’t even believe was real. He literally unfastened my “air” shackles, threw me over his shoulder and carried me outside. EVERYONE in that class understood the Allegory after that. Teaching was almost always that kind of magic. ❤

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