I am sure they are being picky, reading more into casual responses than is really there. But since we students are so vulnerable in the relationship [with our teacher] and the verbal exchange is so rare, we have to read meaning into things like smiles and frowns and recognizing an uplifted hand. Those very subtle gestures are all part of the process of teaching. Somehow, we students need to tell our teachers that we notice everything–every word, every action.
That quote comes from Cliff Schimmels’s book I Was a High School Drop-In, in which Schimmels documents his experience as an educational philosopher enrolling as a high school freshman. Schimmels had spent years studying and teaching how to teach effectively prior to this experiment. By enrolling as a student, he gained greater insight by seeing a different perspective of high school.
I mention this book because I can relate. I am a college drop-in. I haven’t enrolled full-time or anything of the sort, but I enrolled in calculus-based physics classes last semester and this semester. For a variety of reasons, I never took physics, or at least never learned it. For complete disclosure, I took physics in high school, but the trauma of our teacher’s suicide meant that I didn’t really learn anything from the class. And I didn’t have to take it in college, being a mathematics and CS student (thus, no need for a quantitative science general education requirement).
Regardless of the history, this was a hole in my education. And I finally decided to do something about it. I managed to spend half a decade working in semiconductor engineering, as well as published research and taught courses in embedded systems, without ever understanding force or electromagnetism. I’m not sure how, but I did. So I decided that enough is enough and enrolled.
And it has been eye-opening.
For starters, I can attest to what Schimmels describe above and go beyond. The little things really matter. If your students are quiet on a Monday morning and you get impatient and try to prod them, they will notice your tone and shut down. If you make a quip that you think is witty but could possibly be interpreted as condescension, I can guarantee you it will come across as the latter. If you make mistakes on the board when working out problems, it will damage the trust your students have in you (though that’s a discussion for another day).
There are many other insights that I plan to discuss in detail, but I wanted to lay this out as motivation and background for those posts. For now, I will say that I think it would be a valuable experience for every college professor who values teaching to take the time to enroll in a course–and make it one that will actually push you and make you work–as a student. The effect of this experience, if undertaken with good faith, cannot be understated.