My son is in his second year of college. This week I sat with him and helped him select his courses for next semester. As he was sorting through a list of history courses, I remembered that he had a history teacher in high school that he really liked a lot (which was a rarity). So I asked him, “What was it about your history teacher that you liked so much?” I expected him to say, “He was a good storyteller,” or “He was clear about what he expected us to do,” or “He didn’t give us pointless homework.” But none of those was close to his answer. Instead, he shared, “I liked him because he treated us like people.”
“He treated us like people.” Let that sink in.
That response has been lingering with me for days now. As I reflect back on his high school years, I remember how excited he was as a freshman and how disconnected and irritated with school he was by the time he was a senior. I now understand.
Teaching is hard. It’s so hard that I, myself, am struggling to get back to doing it. I’ve been on a teaching break for several years now as I’ve grown into my faculty development roles. While there are days that I ache to have my own students again, there are days when I rejoice at not having to grade assignments at night when I’m tired. Teaching is hard, hard work. And we don’t say that enough.
In higher education, teaching is not valued as an institutional priority. And when one’s work isn’t valued, we are more susceptible of burnout, which is a real thing. Teaching the same courses multiple times, term after term can get monotonous, especially when your students aren’t engaging. Teaching can be a sad, lonely place sometimes. But if we find ourselves in that place, we cannot put the blame on our. Engagement is the product of what students bring and what you bring to a class.
So if you find yourself dreading a class, take that as a sign that something needs to change. If you resist changing your teaching because there is no incentive for that extra work — you’re wrong. There is incentive. In fact, there are 30, 40, or may 50 incentives in every single class you teach. And each one of them has a name and story. When you get to know your students as real people, everything changes. First, because making an effort to get to know them sends a message that you care about them and that’s the first signal that your class is different. When students sense that you care, they start to lean in. Secondly, it helps you to understand the realities your students are navigating along with their studies. Some students, you will find, are dealing with some incredibly stressful situations that you would never imagine.
Start Humanizing Your Teaching with a Student Survey
A very simple way to get started with humanizing your course is implementing a student survey in week one. Require your students to complete it and give them some points for doing so. Tell them the responses go directly to you, will be kept confidential, and that you’ll use the responses to help support their learning throughout the term. While there are many questions you might ask in this survey, here are my two favorites:
- In one word how are you feeling about this course? Most students will reply to this question with “good,” “fine,” or “excited.” But you will also have student who respond with “overwhelmed,” “nervous,” or “anxious.” When you scan the responses to this question, you will know immediately who needs you. Reach out to those students immediately. Send them an email … or really knock them out of their seats by recording a video or voice message for them. Let them know you see them. Let them know you’ll be there to support them. When you do that, you might just be the very first person to ever make that person feel included. That simple action can be transformative for your students who have beat all the odds to be in college.
- What is one thing that might interfere with your success in this class? Most students are going to tell you that they’re busy and short on time. But there will be students who reveal other things. I had an online student tell me she had epilepsy and had slurred speech as a result from a recent seizure. She didn’t want to speak in our VoiceThread assignments but wanted to stay in the course. Of course, gave her the option to type her responses instead. I learned that another online student had a young daughter who was severely disabled and awaiting brain surgery. I used that information to contact her a month later and see how her daughter was doing. She and I are still in touch today, about eight years later. This question opens opportunities for meaningful connections with your students.
As you learn details about your students through the survey results, take notes about them. If you teach with Canvas, enable the Notes column in the Grades area (which is not enabled by default) and enter these details there. You can easily reference them throughout the course and use them to guide your high touch interactions to those who benefit from them the most.
Click the button below to view a sample student survey, which you’re welcome to adapt.
A Teacher’s Story About Humanizing
Kona Jones teaches Statistics at Richland Community College, in addition to being their Director of Online Learning. Kona was recently the keynote for Can•Innovate (check out the archive!) and she was also a guest on the Canvascasters podcast. In the episode below, Kona speaks candidly about a low point in her teaching when she knew her class just wasn’t working. She then describes how she began to humanize her course and watched it transform. Listen in below for a real treat.