Making a Difference – A Teacher’s Perspective

Making a Difference – A Teacher’s Perspective

Rhonda Amsel
2002 3M Teaching Fellow

aking a difference-the topic questions my raison d’etre. That I make a difference I must believe. But what that difference is and how it is attained is more elusive. The longer I teach, the more I feel like a blindfolded archer shooting at a target. Sometimes I hit the head, sometimes the heart, and sometimes the tree.

When I ask some of my students about teachers who “make a difference,” not one of them talks about classroom activities or subject matter! They speak of informal talks about future plans or past disasters, about common interests in music, films or hobbies, or unexpected words of encouragement. In the past, I have been disconcerted to find that what many of my students seem most to remember is time spent in my office, chatting over tea and brownies. This no longer seems odd. We make a difference when we are open to our students outside of as well as in the classroom. Students learn from what we are personally as much as from what we kn9w academically. And we learn from them.

One of my most pleasant academic duties is to compile dossiers for colleagues who have been nominated for teaching awards. It reminds me that I work with teachers who care and whose work and caring have been recognized. When I read the letters of support from their students, I am struck again by the activities that students deem to have made a difference: “He always takes the time to sit down and tall<, no matter how busy he is.” “She listened to my suggestions to improve lab meetings as if I were a colleague and then acted on some of them.” “He took the time to fill out all thirty-five forms when I was applying to graduate programs.”

My colleagues are often surprised that what they have done has touched students. They are not trying to make an impression. They treat all students with respect. They know that a close connection with students provides them with the feedback that makes their teaching more effective.

What happens when, as a result of being a teacher who makes a difference, the class size grows to the extent that the teacher can no longer interact with, or even recognize, each student? These teachers find ways to stay connected. Depending on their styles, they make creative use of office hours, appoint classroom representatives or “ambassadors,” use email or discussion boards. Their classroom atmosphere allows all students the opportunity to participate actively and to have input into the learning process. Admittedly, though, when the class is large, the responsibility for making individual contact devolves more to the student. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make it clear that such opportunities exist.

Teaching and learning-the partnership between teacher and student-is so much more complex than I imagined when I began to teach. It’s more than putting across course material, no matter what the style or teaching technique. It’s also about creating an atmosphere of respect in which students are receptive to learning, in which they feel safe to explore and to make mistakes.

But why would I promote an atmosphere that encourages mistakes? My mother recounts a story about the time she attempted to re-upholster a chair. Her father, a tailor, walked in on the end of the project and said, “You know, you really should not have been able to do that. ” She says she was able to do it because she didn’t know she couldn’t. I want each student to have an experience like that. Without mistakes there can be no progress. Careful planning of classroom activities and gentle formative feedback allow students the freedom to explore. Our own actions as teachers and our response to change can model an exploratory approach.

There is no comment more validating to a teacher than that of the student who says: “I met this challenge. Now I know I can try anything.” I cannot be that teacher for every student, but with an atmosphere of respect, openness and trust I can create the conditions in which all can grow and some can excel.