Mentoring & Humble Pie
As the fall term approaches, I’ve been thinking about my early teaching experiences. Most memorable is a financial accounting course. We were about a quarter of the way into the semester. Students weren’t learning. The first exam was a disaster. The reasons for their weak performance, in my mind, were due to students’ insufficient effort, lack of ability, or a combination of both.
I was teaching as I had been taught. Lecture about the chapter. Assign problems for homework. Review the homework next class; then lecture about the next chapter. It worked for me; it should work for everyone, right?
One of my students made an appointment to see me during “office hours.” As an adjunct, I didn’t have an office so we met in the library. I was prepared to review concepts and answer questions. The meeting proceeded along an entirely different path…
This student, and I am so very sorry that I don’t remember her name, let’s call her Elizabeth, begins with “How do you think the class is going?” This was not one of the questions I was prepared to answer! I admitted that the course wasn’t going as well as I would have liked. She agreed; it wasn’t going very well. Students were struggling to learn. She followed with “I have no doubt you are an excellent accountant. It’s clear you work hard and know the material really well. But you aren’t teaching. Would you like some advice?”
Physiologically, my heart skipped a couple of beats. I felt as if I participated in the ice-bucket challenge. It was hard to breathe. Cognitively and emotionally, my brain was trying to quickly decide how to respond. If I asked for advice, I would be admitting the course was going badly and much of it may be my fault.
Who was Elizabeth, and how did she know enough about teaching to offer me advice? On the first day of class I asked for introductions, including why they were taking the course. Elizabeth noted she had been teaching for 20+ years, and was starting a consulting business. She wanted to better understand her accountant and how to run a business. I hadn’t thought about her background when she made the appointment. But given her experience, she was entirely qualified to offer teaching advice.
I was in my late twenties, a successful CPA who left industry to be a stay-at-home mom. I was very new to teaching. I could have rationalized my response with a number of justifications. This is how I was taught. I’m the teacher; please don’t tell me how to run my class. Accounting is hard, that’s why students are struggling. My pride was wounded and for a brief moment, I considered shutting down the meeting.
But deep down, I was so disappointed by how things were going. I wanted students to learn. I wanted them to be successful. I wanted to enjoy teaching, but it’s not fun when students are struggling. If there was a chance for the class to turn around, shouldn’t I take it? I swallowed my pride (swallowed that first bite of humble pie) and said “What do you suggest?”
We spent the next 15 minutes or so, going over what I now know as an active learning strategy. She suggested mini-lecturing followed immediately by a practice problem for students to do in class. Then review and discuss. Then assign additional problems for homework.
The next class I did as she suggested (I ate the remainder of the humble pie) and several things happened. Students no longer looked bored to tears. I got feedback about the areas that were confusing and was able to clear them up in class. The climate in the class became more of a community. As the period ended, students packed up as usual. Elizabeth waited until everyone else left. As she approached, she smiled and said “Now you’re a teacher!”
The advice was so simple, but not obvious. An open mind and a willingness to eat a little humble pie helped me become a much better teacher. And having gone through this experience helps me be gentler and more aware as I work with faculty today.