Teaching As Relationship (Teaching Tips)

ESN continues its Spring 2017 series on Teaching Tips with this post by history graduate student Joshua Shiver. See his other work for the blog here


Last summer I was given the opportunity to teach my first college-level class: a senior-level lecture course on the history of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. I frankly wasn’t that nervous and I went into the course thinking that my job consisted of a simple two-step process where I simply downloaded information into my students’ brains and then challenged them to think critically about the past and its connection to the present. I was wrong. I discovered instead that education is more relationship than knowledge—a symbiotic and extremely vulnerable relationship where student and teacher unknowingly open themselves to changing one another’s worldviews, and by extension, their approaches to life.

This relationship is wholly unlike any other in one’s life. Therefore, I want to offer some tips learned through the painful process of experience that will hopefully enable other new teachers to build better relationships with their students while also growing as instructors and mentors:

1. Establish high standards for your course up front and never deviate from them. Your students will only respond to the standard that you set for them and if you are constantly bending rules or lowering standards because you are afraid of what they think of you (and trust me, you will be tempted to every day), then they will never learn to work up to your standards. You are then cheating them of the opportunity to learn what they are made of and what they can accomplish.

2. Make sure that you let your students know every single day how much you care about them. From the first day of class, I told my students that I would have very high standards for them and that I expected them to meet them or they would fail because I cared about them and I believed in them. Most students just want to know that someone cares about them and if you show them this, then they will respond much more positively to your teaching.

3. Every day, take the opportunity to pray for your students and for yourself. This will probably be the hardest job that you will ever have to do and you can’t do it alone. Additionally, you never know what your students are going through (and trust me, they are going through far more than you can imagine).

4. Don’t think that you have this teaching thing all together. You don’t. You never will. Some days you will feel like you conquered the world. Other days you will feel like a complete failure who should give up and pack it all in. This is all normal. Don’t be arrogant and don’t be afraid to ask students to help you be a better teacher (student feedback is the manna of the good teacher). After every class, write down one or two things that worked from that day and one or two things that didn’t for future improvement.

5. Finally, don’t try to save every student. I know, I know, this sounds very negative. But in reality, some students aren’t interested in learning and growing. Do not hyper-focus on the problem students or you will find yourself drained, frustrated, and burnt-out very quickly. Instead, be willing to pour into the students who are willing to receive and allow those unwilling to apply themselves to flounder. Often you will find that the students you thought the least of will rise to the occasion and impress you beyond anything you imagined—but only if you allow them to first be awoken by the consequences of their actions.

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Joshua Shiver

Josh Shiver is a graduate student in American history at Auburn University. He has a B.A. in history from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an M.A. in history from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Josh's research interests include the American Civil War, the American Revolution, and the Korean War. His current research looks at the role of relationships on soldier motivations during the Civil War.

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