Students struggling to grasp an important new concept or attempting to think critically about complex issues need to know that you are not disappointed that they are having difficulty. Sometimes in my office hours or even during a lecture a student will ask a question and I will provide an answer that in my own mind is world class, ranked right up there with the most lucid explanations I have ever delivered. Instead of the complete enlightenment I might have expected, often I am confronted with an apologetic, “I still don’t have any idea what you are talking about” from a now increasingly hesitant student. If the issue at hand is truly important, I calmly try the explanation from a different point of view, with enthusiasm and encouragement, often stating that the concept gives many students difficulty. I will not let it go until I am sure the student understands.
In these situations, I remain patient and persistent above all else. I do not want the student to sense even a hint of frustration on my part that would provide him or her with an excuse to give up on him- or herself. I know that even if I am boring the rest of the students present because they had already mastered the material in question, the fact that I keep moving forward in a steadfast way sends a strong and positive signal to everyone. The entire class cannot help but understand that I want each of them to learn all of the material being presented because I think it is important that they do so.
There is an element of humility required here, and I learned this from my father when I was a teenager. My father, a brilliant Silicon Valley engineer, would often tutor neighborhood kids struggling with math. He spent a great deal of time with the daughter of my mother’s hairdresser because the girl was trying to become the first member of her family to attend college. One afternoon I was in an adjacent room listening to my father calmly explain the same algebra concept to her over and over again. Never getting impatient or showing disappointment, he kept at it for a half-hour or more until the lesson was finally mastered. I was fifteen and more or less full of myself at the time. After his pupil had left, I could not help but ask my father how he could remain so patient. I said something like, “How come you didn’t get frustrated with her? That concept was so easy and she just didn’t get it.” My father responded by saying, “Why would I get frustrated? It is not easy for her.” Then, after a pause, he said, “Don’t forget that many things she thinks are easy are hard for you.” Message received, Dad, and I am a much better teacher for it. I find myself relying on the wisdom of these words many times during each semester that I teach. They help me maintain a calm and patient demeanor in front of even those students who are struggling the most.
“Brent Iverson’s message encapsulated in words such as patience, persistence, steadfastness, humility, and calmness puts forward one of the most basic ideas about good teaching. From a student’s perspective, this kind of teaching projects caring, confidence, and collaboration.
Caring suggests to students that their teacher supports their pursuit of learning. It also implies that a teacher will do what she can to help her students grasp complex ideas. Going beyond what is normally expected, an instructor who exercises the idea of caring does not easily give up on students, but she experiments with new and different ways to help them learn. This experimentation is not done in callous way, but it shows a willingness to persist by trying multiple ways to help students understand the material.
This confidence could be the result of helping past students overcome similar learning challenges or of careful, methodical investigation to address issues through the scholarship of teaching. Confident teachers engage students in their learning after reviewing the signals students send. Confidence is also a major catalyst in building trust in the learning process.
The idea of trust is nurtured through student-teacher collaboration. Good teaching is built on open, direct, and reciprocal communication. As Brent suggested, the demeanor that teachers project to students goes a long way in building their confidence and trust. It takes patience, persistence, and humility to understand what students go through to learn and help them complete that journey successfully.”