Friday, October 8, 2010

Teaching Undergraduate Students--Attitudes

Before a recent class I asked the students what their instructors do to make their classes more interesting. One student at the back of the class piped up: "They let us out early." Perhaps I should have laughed and joked along, but this answer deflated me a bit and did not seem to help improve my attitude regarding teaching on that day.

Admittedly, in the last month I have felt more pressure and taught more classes, which may have contributed to my too-serious attitude. Yet, classroom experience is not always positive for one reason or another. Following is a list of possible reasons why library instruction sessions may not always be so wonderful:
  • Library instructor is not adequately prepared.

  • Librarian feels overworked = not enough librarians or staff.

  • Library instructor is trying out some new activities or methods.

  • Students evince negative attitudes regarding library instruction.

  • Student(s) have already received instruction in the library and know all there is to know already.

  • Students have not chosen a topic for their research project.

  • Students and/or instructors have not had enough sleep.

  • Class takes place at a time when many are low on blood sugar = lunchtime.

  • Class period occurs when many are drowsy (afternoon) or just waking up for the day.

  • Students do not like reading, researching, and school in general. They may not value education or understand why they are still going to school.

  • Students may only be around to get the degree, rather than learn.

  • Student may be experiencing personal or family problems.

It seems that focusing on the negative really breeds a downward spiral as far as performance and attitude goes. Sometimes I sense negative feelings from individuals in the classroom, and I let it get to me more than I ought to do. What should a teacher do? Should they ignore negative comments? Students can and sometimes do sabotage instruction.

Last weekend I heard someone talking about teaching--that teachers need to have positive attitudes. I needed to hear this, because I had begun to focus on students and all of their perceived faults. While some students may have less than desirable attitudes, that does not mean instruction should suffer. Consider some of the following suggestions to remain positive during the class:
  • Smile. : )

  • Look around the classroom and make eye contact with as many as you can.

  • Move around the classroom. This helps students pay attention more easily and show you are not afraid of them. Don't hide behind a podium or lectern.

  • Insert some appropriate humor periodically.

  • Ask students to explain to their neighbor something you have taught. Let them ask questions afterward.

  • Find a friendly face or two and feed off of their positive energy.

  • Share examples of how the content can be applied to life or various situations.

  • Tell students how the content will be useful to them in their lives. This sounds the same as the previous point, but I believe it's slightly different. Telling students what they will learn at the beginning of class can sometimes be useful--just make sure you teach them what you said you would. Sharing examples throughout the class can make it come alive.

  • Do something you like during the class. If you like music, literature, or sports, maybe you can find opportunities to demonstrate a search on a topic of your interest if that is what you are doing.

Anyway, in my office I have a whiteboard with Post-it notes on it. It adds some variety with the different colors, but that is beside the point. In workshops I have taught on active learning or teaching-related issues, sometimes I like to ask participants to write down descriptors of their favorite teacher. Invariably, one or more participants (usually the majority) says their best instructor was enthusiastic about the material. Sometimes they use the word "passionate" or some other variation of the idea.

Other students will say the teacher that impacted their lives the most cared about them. All instructors, including library instructors, need to remember these things once in a while, especially if they intend to make a difference in student lives. Yes, I definitely need a reminder once in a while.


Ginger said...

I love your tips on staying positive when you're teaching. Students can be unresponsive, even negative, for so many reasons. It doesn't help to think about how you would rather the students act, you just have to change your own perspective. I am just starting out with library instruction, and I do try several of these techniques. I demonstrate searches about things the students will find interesting or funny, I show them puppets (they're even listed in our OPAC!), I smile, I make a joke or two, and I always look for the student who's following along and paying attention. I appreciate a reminder about keeping a positive attitude, though, because teaching can certainly have its highs and lows.

Spencer said...

Ginger, thank you for your great comment. I appreciate this.

Yes, teacher attitudes play a big role in the success or failure of the class. It seems that some cringe at students' suggestions to make the class more entertaining. I know I do when I have a negative attitude. It's true that when we are in an educational setting learning is the rule of the classroom, but when students can smile and relax because of a joke (mine are generally pretty lame or AWOL) they tend to engage more readily.

Some students honestly do not try because of a lack of confidence--not because they hate librarians or libraries. Consequently, it's dangerous to assume we know what is going on in the students' heads. Librarians and teachers who attempt to make the class more palatable with humor or light-hearted (but relevant) examples often find student facades or fronts melt away into a willingness to try.

Thanks again for your comments. Now I need to remember to practice what I preach. : )