Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Intimidation in the classroom

I teach one class that is, by its very nature, intimidating—statistics. I have high expectations, thus, I know that students feel intimidated (at times) by me. A big part of my day is to consciously attempt to be welcoming to students in order to reduce intimidation while also remaining challenging and critical of their work.

My impression is that students are used to being intimidated in tough classes, and that professors with high expectations will “take fear if they cannot get respect…” If the goal of a class is to create an effective and challenging environment in which students seek to become better students, then intentional intimidation is a big mistake on the part of the professor (in my opinion). In such a setting students might become discouraged and emotional reactions might become additional barriers to classes that are already tough. I have found in statistics that “fear of failure” is a common default reaction that may lead students to become resistant, despite their level of ability. In addition, if a student leans toward laziness they may use intimidation as an excuse not to work hard. In short, motivating students to learn often has nothing to do with their native ability.

When I took organic chemistry the lab professor was very intimidating, and because I was already a professor (I took this class quite recently) I could tell that he enjoyed it. There is some sweet vindication that can be gained through intimidation, and it is tempting to use this method at times. This is because teaching is a frustrating process; though there is only one professor, there are many students of whom a large proportion may not want to learn (this depends on the class and semester). However, the vindication felt by the professor through intimidation is not in the students’ best interests because it is transparent and unwelcoming.

I have become impatient and angry in class before, and I have always regretted it. Part of the partnership between student and teacher is to remain patient. It is true that students may come to a professor with requests that are seemingly unimportant or alternatively highly inappropriate. However, these can as easily be addressed in a calm and assertive manner as in an aggressive, impatient one.

It is an hourly part of my day to assess each situation, each question, each demand, and to attempt to react appropriately. Students range from meek and unassertive to arrogant and demanding, individuals vary through time, and I differ in my ability to be patient from one day to the next. This is why I must remain constantly aware of the fact that there is an important balance that must be struck here in that I must also avoid being overly accommodating to students. The trick is to address each situation fairly. The greatest achievement in teaching is to strike this balance, and the greatest satisfaction to be gained is to witness students learning in such an environment.

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