When I started teaching, as a teachin assistant in Montreal (which at my University meant I was the professor for a freshman class), I didn’t understand that I wasn’t quite supposed to be the same Gord in the classroom as, say, at home. I thought, look, my job is to show people how to do a job. I was teaching writing, something I was good at, and I was teaching students who were basically my own age, or only a few years younger at any rate. I felt that there was no way I could actually pull rank on them, not feasibly, as they were my age, my size… my fellow students, really.
And so I just acted like my normal self in the classroom. This was a disaster, and it lasted for a few weeks. I had students not doing their work, not handing in assignments or studying the materials they were supposed to study for class.
So finally, I gave up on being myself. I acted like a tough demanding boss. I checked that students did their homework, and if they didn’t I deducted marks directly from their final grade. When they missed class too often, and then showed up asking questions about the material missed without a good reason, I told them catching up was their responsibility and they should check with a classmate about what they missed. When they had a good reason for missing class, I told them pertinent page numbers and sent them off to find a classmate as well, but with an offer to help with any questions during my office hours.
Finally, I marked their assignments (almost all writing assignments) very carefully, with clear reasoning and explanations. Students knew exactly why their mark was a B+, a C-, or an A-/B+.
This cultivated respect and cooperation from my students. In fact, all I did was alter my behaviour to appear more like a “real professor” and in my students minds, this worked!
These days, I teach college students. It’s an interesting contrast to my previous work, in Iksan, where I taught mostly kids and older adults as well as some college-age students who were mostly eager to improve their English. My students now are taking a required class.
So I am a little tougher with them. I tell them my high expectations and, while I don’t crush them in terms of grades when they don’t meet my expectations, they also don’t mess around on me as much. When a student who by all rights should have a textbook, shows up in the third week of class without one, I send him home. When a student claims that a given language-task he’s supposed to be practicing is easy, and then he cannot actually perform the exercise at all, I laugh at him a little mockingly, as if to say, “Come on, man, if it’s easy why can’t you do it?” And then I simply tell him to practice more, and he does. Whereas with students who do their work, I am pleasant but businesslike most of the time. No mockery, for they make an honest effort and they fail to get their assigned work done they usually don’t come whining to me with the same pathetic excuse as the week previous.
Jill Carroll has written article about this, titled Constructing Your In-Class Persona, and here’s a snippet from it:
Whether you like it or not, whether you’re conscious of it or not, whether it’s intentional or not, you have an in-class persona that determines a lot of what goes on between you and your students. You might as well put some thought into yours and construct it in a way that will serve both you and your students. If you don’t construct one, what I call your “default” classroom persona will take over for you. If it works for you, consider yourself lucky. But if it doesn’t, the results can be messy.
PS I have decided to be slightly less mocking of the guy who never tries in one of my classes, whose fists, I noticed the other day, are full of sutures and stitches. Scary sight.