The Ethical Professor

Thinking well and doing good in academia.

10 Things I Should've Known When I Began My Teaching Career

If I knew then, would it have mattered?

I don’t believe in time travel, but if I could go back 33 years and visit with myself during my first year of teaching, here’s what I might tell myself:

First, relax. You’re going to do OK. I don’t know how you did it, but you’ve chosen the right career for you–it’ll keep you challenged, fulfilled, and happy.

Listen to your mentors and colleagues! We wouldn’t be having this conversation now if you had heeded the advice of all those people around you. Try not to be so arrogant, alright?

Don’t be so impressed by what you know, by the content. By the time you retire, students will have access to everything you know–via something called the internet. They’ll also have access to games, porn, and trivia about each other, but I’ll tell you about that later…

In a pretty short time, you won’t be teaching 80 percent of the content you’re teaching now. There’ll be new knowledge to teach! Why do you think that what you know now is all you’ll need to know? Did I mention your arrogance?  Well, add short-sightedness to that.  All that practice you had gathering, sifting, and evaluating knowledge in college and grad school–that’s what you’re going to be doing forever. And those skills are what your students will learn from you.

Learn about, and learn from, your students. Remember, Pal, you always sat up front, you got A’s, and you hung out with the other A students. If you had bothered to look behind you and make a few friends, you would have seen that most students got B’s and C’s, and I’m here to tell you that they’re doing quite well in their lives. So don’t use your level of performance as a minimum for others. Remember your professor in college who was brand new and was way too hard? He’s retired now, but he learned quickly how to be challenging without being ridiculous about it–he learned to be supportive as well. You have some growing to do.

Take out the “no exceptions" parts of your syllabi. You’ve been healthy, but just because you don’t get sick doesn’t mean your students don’t. Lots of that is luck, you know–even now you’re too old to get into the personal fable (Elkind).  And you’ll have your share of crises. Listen: Dad had his stroke while you were at a really important meeting (Oops. Maybe I shouldn’t have told you that.).  Give your students the same respect you (will) want during those times.

Speaking of respect: Earn the respect of your students; don’t demand it.

Don’t, don’t, don’t teach when there are no students around. You don’t impress anybody by spewing knowledge. Not since you were seven years old. And certainly not since the internet. All that knowledge and intellectual skill doesn’t make you a better person, just a better professor. 

Develop your human skills–emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1995), communication, empathy, stuff like that. Those will serve you quite well as a person, and even as a professor.

(By the way, try to put the house in your name if you can.)

Finally, don’t believe any of the advice I’ve just given you. I’ll get back to you in a few years. Meanwhile, I’m proud of you.  So’s Mom.

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References:

Elkind, D. (1967). Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38, pp. 1025–1034. 

Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach  (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology  (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

 

Mitchell M. Handelsman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology and a Colorado University President's Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado Denver.

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