Do you remember those teachers in college or high-school who seemed almost inhuman, and completely unapproachable? I remember this one undergraduate political science professor of mine. He reminded me of Albert Einstein, hair all over the place, clothes disheveled, books and notes in disarray. Each time he came to class, he never knew how to use the computer…even though it was the same computer system every time. He’d have Twilight pictures (Yes, the movie Twilight) or pictures of kittens on the background of his computer, and when he taught, I wish I’d had a windshield because of the spit that would shower all of us brave front row sitters. All of this to say, he was a character and he was NOT approachable. In fact, I can barely remember one time I spoke with him personally throughout our entire class and I don’t remember a thing I learned….because I really didn’t learn anything.
While not every teacher is going to be this eccentric and unapproachable, there are still many teachers who keep their students at bay and refuse to really just be human with them. Let me give you a piece of advice. If you want your students to learn—to really learn—they need to feel like they can talk to you, ask you questions and ask for help if they are struggling. They need to know that you are a person!
I know this is intuitive, but it never hurts to be reminded. Our students are actual people and it helps them to know that we too are actual people. Here are four tips to help stay human while teaching.
Talk to Your Students Before Class Starts
If you are the type of professor who gets to class before the class is supposed to start, one way to show students that you are willing to engage and relate with them is to simply chat with them while sitting together and waiting for class to start. This is a great way to break the ice. Students will respond and may even start talking to you before class starts. This is great! They’ll start coming to you with questions, telling you what they’ve learned etc.
Laugh at Yourself When You Mess Up
Really! You don’t have to be perfect and the less “perfect” you come across to the students, the more comfortable they are going to be approaching you for help and admitting they need help. They aren’t perfect but if they feel that you are, they may be less inclined to approach you about their struggles.
So, if you forget something, mess up a word, or don’t know the answer to something during a lecture, call your self out. Sometimes I’ll pronounce something and it comes out completely wrong. I’ll usually stop and repeat the wrong thing I just said, laugh a bit (because, come on, if you’re human, mispronouncing a word can be funny!), and then keep going. I don’t dwell on it, but I do acknowledge it. It’s a little thing, but it’s key to being more human for your students and lets them know that you aren’t above making a mistake and correcting it.
Talk to Your Students During Class
If you never interact with your students while lecturing, they are going to feel less comfortable talking to you when you aren’t lecturing. Think about it. Let’s say you come into class, stand in front of your students and give a speech. In doing so, you hardly acknowledge their presence, their understanding, or their lack of understanding. This does not translate to the students that you truly care about whether or not they are learning anything. Why? Because if you did, you’d make sure that they are understanding while lecturing! So, why would they feel that you’d want to help them outside of class if you won’t help them inside of class? Make sense?
So, talk to your students while teaching (for more on this, read my blog post about how to get students involved). Ask them questions. Pause and ask if they understand. Ask them to explain to you what you just explained to them. Pay attention to their facial expressions. Do you see confusion? Understanding? The light-bulb going off? Remember, you’re talking to a group of actual people! Treat them as such!
Joke, Laugh, Smile, Refer to Topics Not Related to Class
This is all somewhat intuitive but it doesn’t hurt to remind you. Your students are going to feel tense and uptight if you come across tense and uptight. They will feel at ease, and likely more engaged, if you are at ease and more engaged. You set the tone in the classroom. Being human means…being human! Humans laugh, humans smile, humans talk about more than just academics. Don’t go crazy but just interact and engage with your students person to person and they’ll have more reason to reciprocate. The more you show them you care, the more they will care. The more they see that you care, the more comfortable they will be seeking you out to learn more. This is what you want!
These are simple little tips that you can make your own. You don’t even have to use these ideas as long as you are being human. Be human your way! How doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you don’t turn into my crazy Einstein professor who alienated his students to the point that no one felt they could talk to him (or even email him) at all outside of class. Being a teacher is a privilege. Don’t miss your chance to make an impact on these young lives because you’re choosing to be a robot with a wall between you and them. Enjoy engaging them and being human with them and they will return the favor!
The Liberty Belle