A letter to my recent students:
I am writing you today because I feel it is time for openness from my perspective on you and your experiences in my recent courses.
I went into teaching in higher education 22 years ago because I loved learning, helping others learn, and to enjoy the intellectually stimulating place that universities and colleges can be. I also thought that I was somehow doing good – helping the world be a better place through education.
The journey over 22 years has been very rewarding to me. I smile when I reflect on the amazing experiences we have had together. Many of you I will remember fondly for the rest of my life. Some have become my dear friends, too!
During these last 2 decades it was not only you who have grown professionally and personally through our experiences together, but me too! We have both gained new skills, awareness, knowledge, and self-confidence. I used to be scared of going into the classroom when I first started teaching. This and many other fears and insecurities have been replaced with confidence and strength. And I have seen the dramatically increased confidence and strength in hundreds of you, too!
Recently, however, I have found myself scared again of teaching. And it surprised and disturbed me when I uncovered the reasons:
1. I love learning and growing intellectually and personally, and always have. Recently, I have found a mismatch between what I love to do and what you are seeking. Most questions I get from you now are either grade related or “tell me what to do” queries, not learning related. As I don’t worry much about grades (and never did) receiving your questions has become increasingly frustrating for me.
2. Further, there has been a lot of emotion attached to your queries recently: Shock, anger, disappointment, and blame pointed at me when your grades do not meet your expectations, or I won’t tell you “what to do”. When I was in university, I knew that my grades generally reflected my effort, understanding, abilities, and skills. Obviously, there were good teachers and bad teachers, great courses and crappy courses. But overall, it was *me* who was responsible for my grades, not my professors. I always knew this. To my recent surprise, apparently many of you think I am responsible for your grades and for your learning!
3. I always knew that I had to change and grow up as a necessary part of my learning. And for most of my 22 years, I think most of my students understood this too. Through mutual trust, engagement, hard work, and opening up our minds and spirits, learning happened through change. Now, I am finding that most of you want to do more of the same things you did before, in the same ways, as if learning is about simply more volume of information intake in the ways you did before. This is so fundamentally opposite to learning as I understand the process that I simply don’t know how to teach in the way you want me to.
4. Mentoring has always been an important part of my learning. When asked at the end of my degree who I held up as a person I respected and wanted to be like right then, It was Professor Jim Erskine, a master teacher and overall amazing person. He represented at that time the person I wanted to be primarily because he was dedicated to crafting the most amazing learning experiences for his students and making it safe for us to learn. I grew tremendously from his teaching, mentorship, and those transformative learning experiences. From building our communication skills to new ways of seeing the world, every class had something to learn, even if I didn’t fully understand at the time all of of what it was I was learning. I knew I was on to something good in Jim’s classes and gave all I could to learning and growing during our time together. I was no perfect student, to be clear, but I really worked hard at changing myself.
Over the last 22 years, I have found myself humbled by the number of my own students who feel I have helped them learn and grow. This alone has made the journey worthwhile for me.
In the last 2 years I have been humbled again. This time, however, it has not been in a happy way. Despite crafting and honing what I thought were my best learning opportunities yet, and looking forward to our time together with all that I have to give, I witnessed very little interest from you in engaging and learning. Oh, we have had the odd fun times in the classroom and a few of you have excelled, but would have despite anything I have done. As a whole, however, I feel little change has happened as any result of my role as your teacher. In other words, I am no longer making a difference.
These last few courses together have been the most difficult experiences of my career and have led me to reconsider why I teach and whether I am able to teach any longer.
“Maybe it is me who is now simply a bad and uncaring teacher”, I have asked myself in reflection. So, how did I go from being a teacher that made a difference to one who students get angry at because they don’t like their grades or I won’t tell them what to do?
After some reflection, I have come to the conclusion that there is no judgement needed. No good or bad conclusions to be made about myself or about you.
There is simply a mismatch.
We now have different purposes. I am here to help others learn and grow because I love to learn and grow.
I sense that you have come to my classroom with different purposes and for different reasons. Not good or bad reasons, to be clear, but simply because you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with.
I regret that I did not see this mismatch coming sooner. But that is the nature of learning, isn’t it? You sometimes have to learn by experience.
I now take full responsibility for finding where I can do what I do best. I make this commitment to myself and to any future students I teach. Future students: I will help you to the best of my abilities and with all the care I can for your human development. If, however, you want something other than learning as I understand it and can help you with, I will graciously decline to be your teacher.
In conclusion, I hope this letter helps you understand more about our time together these last few courses, the grades you earned, and why I was not able to deliver what you wanted: Top grades and a simple path to your success in getting those grades. We have a mismatch of purposes, perhaps, that is all.
All the very best to you. May you find the success you seek!