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What happens when knowing the material isn't enough?

What happens when knowing the material isn't enough?


I began teaching many years ago. The very first real class I taught was at a local community college with a program I didn't have much experience with at the time. As a result, I was a little uncertain about my skills and was afraid my students might pick up on it or call me out for the imposter I was (of course, they never did but sometimes self-doubt can be a tall hurdle). Anyhow, toward the end of each session, we asked the students to review the course and their interactions with the instructor. To my surprise, several of my students mentioned my methods seemed a bit clinical and felt I was difficult to connect with on a personal level. Their perception was that I was a no-nonsense instructor that taught strictly by the book. They mentioned that sometimes they even felt a little nervous about asking for assistance during class because my expectations of them were too high. Needless to say, I was stunned. These reviews portrayed the polar opposite of who I felt I was and what I thought I was projecting. 

What my students didn’t know was that I was secretly terrified of teaching this subject. This was my first college-level class and the material I was being asked to teach was way outside my comfort zone. As a result, each day before class, I would review the lesson plan thoroughly up and down inside and out until I could present it flawlessly. I felt my students had paid good money to learn what I was teaching and they would want a teacher that knew the material inside and out. That way they wouldn’t feel they were somehow being taken advantage of by a lazy instructor who didn’t know his stuff. 

After the reviews, I leveled with them and explained where I was coming from. I explained my inexperience with the program we were learning and my anxiety about giving them a high level experience. They assured me that they were impressed by my knowledge and ability but what they really wanted was a teacher who was sympathetic to their needs and could relate to them on a more personal level. They were less concerned about how much we could cram into a 6-week session and more about how they could apply what they were learning to their everyday life. That meant being comfortable straying from the lesson plans in the book and being open to giving them more real-life applications about what they were experiencing outside the classroom. They also wanted to know more about me personally and how I used the programs to create the things I did outside of class. Basically what they were telling me was they wanted someone who was approachable, someone who they could make a personal connection with and relate to but most of all they wanted someone who was not afraid to show some vulnerability. 

Being approachable seems like a pretty simple thing, basically, it’s about being open and is generally regarded as a positive. Most people like to think of themselves as warm, friendly and receptive but sometimes what we think of ourselves is very different from the way we are perceived by others. Often signals we think we are putting out are misperceived and sometimes what we feel inside isn’t always the message we are projecting. 

I’ve learned a lot from my students over the years and my teaching methods have evolved dramatically with each new group of students I make a connection with. I’d like to hope that my first group of students would be proud of the advancements I’ve made and if any of them are reading this now, I’d like to say thank you for your candor and sharing your wisdom. And to all the students I’ve taught over the years I just want to say I hope you’ve learned as much from me as you have from you.