How Students Can Become a Joy to Teach

Habits to cultivate

Posted May 10, 2018

It’s that time of the year. Students are stressed, cramming for final exams and finishing major projects. Many are talking about being up straight for two and a half days to do this, strung out on coffee and Red Bull. Similarly, professors are spinning from exhaustion. Immediately after an awards ceremony and celebration last week, I stopped for an iced coffee at Starbucks at 8 p.m. thinking and hoping it would help me get through the final push with grading. There I bumped into a colleague who said he had come to do the same thing, and that he felt like he was sleepwalking. It was like we were hungover from teaching, campus service, and the demands of our own research and writing. Meanwhile, graduations are being celebrated nationwide, words of wisdom are hurled through crowds, festivities abound, and the smell and taste of summer are finally upon us. 

Nicola Tolin/Unsplash
Source: Nicola Tolin/Unsplash

I have officially been in school for 43 years, teaching for over 20 of those years. I easily have about 20 more years to keep doing this, since I am 48. And what is hitting me this year is how some students are a joy to teach, how some truthfully are not, and how we might better harness our energy to help more students become a joy to teach. I also realize that some professors make learning more joyous than others. Here, though, I am going to focus on how students — or your kids, if you are parents reading this — can be a joy to teach. 

Growing up, my mother taught me what she called school survival skills. My mother taught junior high and high school for many years before I was born and then worked with severely troubled youth when I was a child. She wanted me to love learning, and she wanted me to succeed; she wanted me to be curious and to look at things in new ways. And, both implicitly and explicitly, she made it abundantly clear that I should be nice to my teachers. Very nice. It was really quite simply about genuine gratitude

Starting in nursery school and then continuing in elementary school, every single year, my mother would invite my teacher over for lunch. And every year at holiday time, I made my elementary school teachers handmade gifts. One year, my mom took me to buy clay flowerpots, and we painted them and put plants inside. In fourth grade, I had the same teacher I had in second grade, and we went to her house to bring gifts for her new baby, hand-me-downs for her older girl, and cupcakes for the whole family. 

All of this blows my mind now. Just as it blows my mind that even as a student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I was invited to the homes of my two favorite professors, one for dinner with the whole class and one to drop off a thank-you gift with my father for all her help mentoring me through my senior thesis. I am aware that at some small and selective liberal arts colleges, it still sometimes happens that a professor will hold a potluck celebration at his/her house at the end of the semester. I cannot even fathom doing this now. Yes, I am still very close and connected with hundreds of students I have taught and have had many over to my home over the years, but I could not and would not invite whole classes over anymore. 

See, the generation that has been taught to the test and has been rubricized instead of properly socialized is generally not as fun to hang around. The generation that reviews the professor’s comments on papers like it’s a receipt from Walmart render the enterprise too transactional and crass. The generation taking online classes and forgetting that the professor is a human being and not a robot is more alienating to work with. We built it this way. The institutions make this so. 

The generation of digital natives, though more globally connected than ever before, seems more afraid of showcasing their own ideas and far more lonely, depressed, and anxious than any I have previously taught. All of these things change the shape of the conversations I am able to have with my students. I have students who credit me with helping to keep them together emotionally, yet when I offer some of them challenges and ideas for stretching their own intellectual and creative work even further and deeper, they get stuck and are more reticent to do this. The rubrics have failed them. The system has failed them.

In every syllabus, I say this: “Teaching and learning is not a paper/grade exchange, but an exchange of ideas and humanity, a relationship of mentoring and mutual growth — a meeting place if you will.” This is when I really wish students read the syllabus. The students who get this do better. Every single time. It is the essence of an education well lived. It is also where and how joy emerges, both for the student as well as for the educator.

We had graduation last weekend, and since then, I have received close to a dozen or so gorgeous letters of gratitude from students, some of whom just graduated and a few others who are still in school. In a couple of these cases, the parents reached out to thank me as well. It was clear to me once again how well they had raised their children. 

One young man, Chris, who also happened to be the student body president, made it a point of posting photographs and messages of gratitude to those of us who mentored and stood by him all these years — I was in good company with a few other colleagues, his mother, and his grandmother. 

We know that all good leaders do this — they notice, honor, and appreciate the work of others along the way. They humbly realize that success cannot happen in isolation, but that it literally takes a village. Interestingly, raised by a single mom, Chris acknowledged a group consisting of virtually all women, with the exception of one of my male colleagues. All too often the emotional labor of women at the university and elsewhere is ignored and taken for granted.  

What’s beautiful to me about what Chris did on Facebook is that he made visible that which needs to be made more visible all the time — gratitude for educators and the sheer joy and ecstasy that is possible through mutual mentoring with love. Another one of my all-time favorite students — and yes, we have them, so we may as well be honest about it — posted a sweet message responding to Chris’s post, also showcasing gratitude and love for my role in her life. 

Another student I have had in three classes has always made a habit of leaving every single class session thanking me. It has been most unusual to hear this from a 22-year-old multiple times a week, and it has made an indelible imprint on me. This student failed my class the first time she ever took it and has struggled to earn better grades since. She certainly earns an A+ as a human being. 

Students who are a joy to teach seem to understand that the world is larger than they are. Rather than myopically obsessing in a grade-grubbing way or emailing professors incessantly when the answers are most often in the syllabus or can be gathered in office hours, students who are a joy to teach show more respect for professors, for their peers, and for themselves.  

Students who are a joy to teach are human beings I enjoy getting to know as learners and as people finding themselves in the world. Because in the end, teaching is about connecting. It’s about community. It’s about love and touch and flesh and the body and the mind and the heart and the voice and the spirit. That is also when it is most joyful. Sheer ecstasy, in fact. 

When students behave poorly in or out of class, I ask them quite simply two things: 1) How would you handle you if you were me? And I ask: 2) How do you want to be remembered? These questions are meant to compassionately confront students on problematic, disruptive, and misguided behavior, and on actions and decisions that lack integrity and honesty. By asking these questions, I push for accountability, empathy, pause and reflection, and emotional rigor. 

I believe we can help students become a joy to teach when we help them to: 

1. Think of the world beyond themselves and the effect of their communication and actions on their peers and professors.

2. Cultivate gratitude.

3. Reflect on their educational goals and the process, rather than just on grades.

4. Build the empathy muscle.

5. Seek out help early on and not when desperate.

6. Avoid grade-grubbing foolishness (more on this in the very next blog!).

7. Avoid acting desperate and making bad choices, including plagiarism, sending unprofessional and careless emails, etc.

8. Consider how they want to be remembered in their relationships.