Meditations on Education 3.01

The Teacher/Student Relationship

Having been a student and a teacher I am always interested by the different expectations of students and teachers. Let me example what I mean with a hypothetical situation. The situation is in college because this allows for the student to be conscious of their role as a student. I am not sure how much this mindset changes with age but by having the student be older we can make broader assumptions.

Neo is a sophomore in college and is taking a class in History. Professor Smith is his teacher and has assigned a paper on the conflict between Octavian, Mark Anthony and Brutus after the death of Caesar. The class has spent 3 weeks talking about the fall of the Roman Republic and the Rise of the Roman Empire.

Neo thinks of the assignment as punitive because they have not talked about the subject in class. Neo looks at Professor Smith as being hard on the class asking them to do the research for a whole 5 page paper and so he goes and watches HBO's ROME and uses that to write his paper.

Professor Smith thinks of the paper as a way for students to learn to do research. He specifically doesn't cover the rise of Octavian so the students don't get bored of hearing about something then trying to do research on it.

When the paper comes in Prof. Smith gives it a C. It's not bad, it covers the very basics but it clearly lacks sources and seems to kind of jump through the history.

Neo thinks of this grade as a personal attack. Neo goes through all his in class interactions and tires to build a case for why Professor Smith is picking on him by giving him a bad grade. He justifies his not researching by saying that the Professor needed to talk about it in class, if the professor doesn't care, then Neo doesn't care.

Neo tells Prof. Smith he doesn't understand why he got the grade he did. He asks Prof Smith to explain it to him and Professor Smith tries to explain the missing parts but sees Neo isn't really listening to him.

Neo has a set of expectations that generally go something like "I should get an A unless I screw something up" and "The professor's job is to educate me, if I don't get it then he must have not covered it enough."

Interstingly enough Professor Smith has conflicting thoughts on this. "The students have to take responsibility for their own learning, if they don't they can't internalize the knowledge." contrasting with "I already know this stuff, it is my duty to do everything I can to impart this in a meaningful way."

Students do have the right to expect to be educated, they are paying for their education and they should expect their professors to be good at what they do. Students also have the right to question the situation their professors put them in, the professor should have a reasoned and professional answer as to why they do things the way they do. Neo is being irresponsible but he's not wrong for asking why. Neo is wrong for not caring what the answer is.

Professor Smith has the right to expect Neo to do his work, and to do it right. If Neo won't participate in his own education there is nothing Prof. Smith can do to make it work. Professor Smith also cannot take responsibility for Neo's learning. He must however take responsibility for his teaching, he has to be professional and think out why he is doing something particular way.

One of the best ways teachers and their students can deal with this is to take that first week of class and honestly talk about their expectations. I have found that when I have professors who tell me exactly what they expect of me tend to get more from me. As a professor I find that when I explain myself upfront and give students a clear rubric of expected outcomes they work toward my expectations intend of trying to invent my motives in their own minds.

Students have to realize they are in control of their own education. If the student does the work no professor is going to fail them. But students do need to be told exactly what is expected of them. Nothing is more confusing and detrimental to a student's success than unclear expectations.

The student/professor relationship is really hard to define because it is different with every class and every professor. Every professor asserts their position in different ways. A lot of professors and teachers need to be in complete control, some however are very flexible. I want my professors to be strong leaders with clear plans and clear expectations. As a professor I want to be clear about my expectations but I also need to be flexible for those times when life interrupts the class.

I always want to be a professor I would want to have as a student but I realize that as a professor I'm not always going to be that guy. I also realize that my style of teaching is a very odd dichotomy for a lot of students. I am very informal, I sit not he front table, I crack jokes, I am very laid back. I also have very particular expectations for the work my students do, I expect them to put the effort in and I'm not interested in dealing without he myriad excuses that seem to come up when students need to turn in work or come to class.

Students feel they have legitimate issues and I need to be sensitive to them. I on the other hand think they need to come to class and turn in final draft work on time regardless of their issues. It's a real problem every semester because we have different expectations. I know as a student that my life interferes sometimes and I want a professor who can make exceptions for me when I need them. As a professor I realize I can't be that level of flexible. I have a hard enough time keeping everything ordered and to try and isolate a particular student or five on any given assignment… I'd either lose something or drive myself nuts.

These roles and expectations are hard and the only good answer is to be upfront and honest. There are times I can be flexible, there are times I can't. There are also times when students need to be responsible to tough through some adversity and there are times when they just need an exception. These roles don't have to be static, they can be plastic enough to allow everyone to get what they need.

the key is talking about it. A lot of teacher/student relationships are considered to be socially set. I can't speak for elementary teachers who I think have a very traditionally set role but I think for High School and College teachers need to renegotiate their role with their students. While the teacher is never responsible for the student's learning we are responsible for making the environment conducive to learning. To use an old maxim, while we cannot make the horse drink we must lead it to water. We cannot however beat ourselves up when the horse doesn't want to drink the water we lead them to.

Just my thoughts, they may change as I spend more time thinking it over.