My favorite undergraduate professor was a brilliant historian named Phillip Paludan. What made him a truly extraordinary classroom teacher was the obvious fact that few things in life gave him more joy than teaching. Because Paludan had a gift for voices, he would sometimes transition from lecture to reenactment. He used an over-the-top British accent to explain the English view of the Revolutionary War. His Southern accent, trotted out occasionally during discussions of the Civil War, was equal parts outrageous and entertaining. Because Paludan had fun teaching, we students had fun learning.
Unlike Professor Paludan, I can’t do accents. I do not try. But like Professor Paludan, there are few things in life that I find more fulfilling and more fun than teaching. So I do emulate him by making it clear to the students that I am happy to be in class and that I am having fun teaching the material, which vastly improves the odds that the students in attendance are going to have a good time and enjoy learning.
I have not immersed myself in the literature of positive psychology, but I’m pretty sure that if I did I would find scientific underpinning for what we all instinctively know – that good moods are contagious. Bad moods are as well, unfortunately. Most of us have had experiences with teachers who dearly wished to be anywhere but in the classroom. That can never end well.
So, as I toddle off to class each day, I do not focus on the grand organizational scheme that I intend to use, or the details of the most intricate concepts that I hope to impart. Instead, I simply focus on putting myself into a good mood. I used to try to think of a joke or a clever comment with which to begin class, often playing off some absurdity in the day’s news. But now I am more likely to dredge up a memory of traveling to a fun place with my wife and daughters when the girls were little. Or I think about the last time I had a really good slice of chocolate cake. That’s all it takes to put me in a good mood as I walk into the classroom, which is all it takes to help me set the right tone for class.
No matter the course or student level, if I have a smile on my face and am in a genuinely good mood, everything will go better for me and for most of the students. Of course, there may always be a few students who are determined not to have a good time in class, no matter how positive my attitude. For them I try to remember Herm Albright’s saying: “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”
“Don’t reinvent the wheel. This advice applies to the classroom and presentations in general. When you observe other presentations, make conscious notes about things you like and do not like about their style, their slides, their mannerisms, and so on. As suggested, try some new things – but not all at once. Treat the classroom like a laboratory, exploring different strategies and activities, to see which ones best engage the students and fit the course material. You should not be overwhelmed. I would never recommend that an instructor move from a 100% traditional lecture style to a 100% flipped classroom. Instead, each topic or even class session can be different. Mix it up and see what works. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from students, even beyond the typical end-of-course survey mandated by your institution. If you try something new, spend a few minutes the next class asking the students what they liked or didn’t like. If you hit upon something they like, something that you find interesting and engaging, and something that effectively conveys the necessary material, then that’s gold – everyone will benefit.”