Notes from the VisCom Classroom: What It Takes to Teach

I had the good fortune to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in the company of two university professors, people I would consider masters of their craft. A lot of the conversation was about teaching. What are the characteristics of a great teacher?

Here’s what we decided after a couple of glasses of Thanksgiving wine. A great teacher is a combination of actor, salesperson, and agent provocateur.

Great Performances

Your students are expecting a great performance—think Masterpiece Theater, but without the British accent. Come to class prepared. Have a Plan C, in case plans A and B fail. The show must go on. Leave your personal problems at home. Be enthusiastic and engaging. Smile.

Nobody wants to sit through an hour or more in the company of someone who clearly isn’t passionate about what they do. If you are not in love with your subject matter, fall in love. Or change subjects, if possible.

Students have a fine-tuned sense of negativity and boredom—bring something new and original to your starring role, even if you’ve played it hundreds of times.

Be a moving target. Keep your students guessing. Keep them laughing. Keep them on the edge of their seats. Call on them for answers and questions. Entice them to shut their laptops and pay attention.

First Few Minutes Set the Tone

You only have one chance to make a great first impression. The first few minutes of the first class session set the tone for the entire semester.

You need to meet those expectant looks with the conviction that the next 14 weeks will be a worthwhile experience.

Plan something stimulating for the first class session. Your students may expect you to go over the syllabus and then dismiss class early. Confound their expectations.

If your class is small enough, do something that lets you learn their names. Ask about their hopes, their fears, and their goals for the coming semester. Get them talking to each other. Show your students that you care.

What if you teach a large lecture class? Don’t lecture that first day. Don’t show a PowerPoint. Find out what they know. Deconstruct the course title. Ask the students what the words actually mean. Why do we have this course in the curriculum? Why is it important? How will it benefit them?

Provoke, Protect, and Defend

Take your students out of their comfort zone. Provoke them. Learning happens when there is a tension between what students know and what they want to know.

The mind is like a muscle—it grows only when worked hard.

Depending on where you teach, you may find that your students are overly passive. They want to fly under the radar, doing just enough to maintain whatever GPA they need to stay in school and keep their financial aid flowing.

This passivity may be caused by technology. Students today are constantly receiving multiple streams of information—from their iPods, smart phones, and computers.

They can sit back and take it all in—without having to do anything other than punch a few keys or click a mouse.

Students may also be passive because they have been conditioned at school or at home. Don’t rock the boat, don’t question authority, keep your head down.

Whatever the reason, you need to break on through to the other side. Challenge them to express an opinion, to take a stand, to make a case.

But be sure to make your classroom environment one in which students feel safe to think and express themselves freely. Protect and defend free thought and free speech. Mutual respect is the key.

Master of the Universe

As a teacher, you have dual responsibilities. You need to master your subject matter. And you need to master the art of teaching.

No matter what you teach, chances are your subject matter is constantly evolving. New discoveries, new technology, new scholarship, and new methods of inquiry—all of these shape the way you must approach your subject.

Teaching methods change too. You can fear change or embrace it. “Put head in sand” is not one of the instructions in the faculty handbook. And if change is taking place in other classrooms, your students will likely know that you are shortchanging them—and yourself.

You’re Not a Walking Wikipedia

Yes, you are a master of your subject matter, but realize that you probably can’t know everything. Your job description isn’t “walking Wikipedia.” Have confidence in what you do know. And make sure you can find the answers to things you don’t know. Better yet, have your students find the answers.

Teaching is not a sender-receiver enterprise. Great teachers do not simply transfer what they know to their students. That’s what libraries and the Internet are for.

Instead, great teachers stimulate their students’ interest and curiosity. They create a classroom climate that allows learning to happen. And they provide the resources that enable students to seek answers and solve problems.

It’s Your Classroom

From the moment you walk into the room, the classroom is yours. You set the tone. You make the rules. The classroom is a magic room—it’s a place where learning happens.

Shape the environment so that learning happens the way you want it to happen.

Do you want students to use their laptops? Text on their mobile phones? Eat their lunch? Talk to their neighbors? Work on a crossword puzzle?

Don’t assume anything—let the students know your expectations.

Contributing to the Field

Most teachers do more than just teach. If you are tenured or tenure-track faculty, you are involved in both scholarship and service—writing books and articles, serving on committees, and working with students outside of the classroom.

If you are an adjunct, you may run your own business, be involved with a professional organization, and maintain an online presence through a website or blog.

Whatever the case, great teachers make significant contributions to their field. Their students benefit from this depth and breadth of experience. It’s a win-win situation.

If you are a teacher or a student, I’d love to hear from you!

4 Responses to “Notes from the VisCom Classroom: What It Takes to Teach”

  1. This is great advice. I've been teaching on and off as an adjunct since about 2000. You definitely have to set the tone at the beginning of the semester.

    I started out teaching Intro to Digital Imaging/Photoshop. This semester I was teaching Intro to Digital Photography. I was a little nervous at first because I hadn't taught it before, but my enthusiasm spread and it'a amazing to see how far the students have come since September.

    Last fall I taught a lecture classroom, Foundations of Graphic Communications and I hated. I went in every week to put on my "show," trying to make the class interesting, but no matter what I did I just got blank stares. The students didn't want to be there and weren't applying themselves. I will never teach that class again. Lecturing is not my knack.

    I still go in class with my "show" each week but but this time the student actually want to be there. No matter how tired I am before class starts but once we get started at 6pm I get rejuvenated. I almost have to push them out the door at 9:20pm.

  2. Thank you for this article. Though I am not teaching my students for more than a few days at a time (contract software trainer - most classes are 1-3 days), the things you have written here are perfectly applicable to my job. One of the things that has made being a contract trainer a viable full-time job is that I have a lot of repeat work and have been with several of my current agencies for over ten years. I love what I do and I try to remember every day that it is an honor to teach, that it must be done with passion, and that it should leave the student better for the experience.

  3. Professor Weintraub,
    This article is really insightful and wonderful. You were definitely an amazing professor, and one I will never forget. All the things listed above you excelled at in the classroom. You were quite possibly one of the most inspiring teachers in my college career. Thank you for everything, and especially your patience.

    Haley Frano

  4. Wowza David, sounds like you once again hit the mark especially with that last comment from one of your own students.

    Thank you for publishing this. I've taught on and off when time would allow from my freelance career. My most successful classes were taught to beginning photography students not only because they're the easiest to make large improvement strides from their blank slate beginnings but because I was so passionate about making images that did not bore people.

    After a long hiatus I returned to teaching a class on how to direct people in still photography. All the other usual courses had been well covered and I was asked to come up with something new. That was new but what I didn't
    do (but probably instinctively knew) was pretty much anything your article covers.

    I spent the entire class (too many hours scheduled for what I knew how to teach) in what you described as the "Sender--Receiver" mode of teaching where one just tries to transfer the knowledge one has to the student. Does
    not work. It's boring and you're kept on the stage for hours ad libbing with war stories and repetition ad nauseum.

    So thanks again David, Rick Rappaport

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