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Teaching and transforming our students

Well, here we are at the start of another school year filled with excitement, hope, energy, and an opportunity to make a real difference in the world with our hallowed profession!

I was recently asked by Interim Provost John Barrett and his staff to facilitate a mini-workshop on teaching for the New Faculty Orientation Program. As part of the program, we did a group exercise with UT’s 80-plus new faculty on “The Attributes of the Best Class You Ever Experienced.” Our new faculty members described their experiences, shared those with each other, and coached each other on what to do to provide our students with awesome learning experiences. It was truly inspiring to hear faculty discuss how great teachers had changed and transformed their lives!

Dr. Clinton Longenecker

Dr. Clinton Longenecker

I know that teaching is sometimes underappreciated, but I was reminded by my new colleagues that teaching has the potential to change and transform people’s lives, which is a noble calling indeed. As teachers, it’s easy to focus most of our time and energy on the “information” associated with our various courses. But we have found in our adult learning research that information is simply the foundation for great teaching. Game-changing teachers focus on providing great information in their courses for sure. But great teachers also create a learning climate for student motivation, idea integration and career application to help their students experience real transformation.

So going into this new school year, here are some of the most important things that we can do to provide our students with transformational experiences. Our students deserve cutting-edge information and knowledge, but let’s remember to use our platform to help transform our students.

Our students connect with our passion and mojo. The overarching factor for transforming students is bringing our passion, excitement, expertise and enthusiasm to each and every exchange we have with them. They can tell pretty quickly if we’ve “got mojo” for them and for what we are teaching. This single factor plays a dominant role in our ability to motivate and impact our students.

Our students want and need the “big career/skill” picture. The best teachers create relevance and idea integration. Regardless of the subject we teach, it is imperative to ground each class with a clear and concise explanation of how this class will benefit the students’ career preparation. Whether it is course content, specific skills that will be acquired, people they will meet, or practices to be mastered, it is important that we give students a strategic view of how each class will help them achieve their career aspirations. As the semester unfolds, we need to constantly illustrate how our material ties back to their career success. This simple act can have a powerful effect on a student’s motivation and commitment.

Our students want and need learning structure and clear expectations. We should never underestimate the importance of being organized and in communicating our course schedule and expectations on an ongoing basis. We want our students to know exactly what is coming and when to help them plan and organize. Let’s make it easy for students to work hard and learn. Many of us have found that it is very useful to create a course-learning contract. This document outlines the behaviors and challenging expectations that our students can expect of us and that we can expect of them. The best teachers challenge their students to be the best they can be!

Our students want access to us and need us to connect with them at a personal level.
It is said that “people care how much you care before they care how much you know,” which is true in any discussion of great teachers. So there is no substitute for establishing, communicating, keeping, inviting and welcoming students to make use of office hours. The simple act of being accessible to our students can carry great weight in letting our students know we care for them and are there to answer questions and provide career counsel. Students also greatly appreciate it when we know their names. Now in big classes, this can be very difficult, but nametags, name placards or using technology to memorize student’s names can all send a powerful message that we care about them as people.

Our students want and need active hands-on learning and engagement. In every discipline, there is a time and a place for straight one-way lecture teaching. But research continues to show that real learning and transformation requires student engagement and active learning. In putting together each class, ask yourself, “What can I do to encourage student involvement, ownership and excitement around the material, foster dialogue and discussion, and build energy and enthusiasm into the session? The good news is there are lots a ways to do this and lots of people on campus to help us if we are serious about becoming better transformers. Our students want class to be fun, and maybe even entertaining, regardless of discipline. Focusing our efforts to create student motivation, integration and application of material is critical.

So here’s a thought: Instead of going into this new school year thinking of ourselves as teachers, instructors or professors, consider redefining your role to that of a transformer. A decade ago, I redefined my role as that of a transformer and it has caused me to approach teaching very differently. And as a transformer, I’m always looking for new ideas on how to improve my teaching talent, so I hope you don’t mind me sharing these thoughts.

Transforming our students just might be one of the more important activities that you and I ever participate during our lives. And as a University of Toledo alumnus, I am very fortunate to have been transformed by the great teachers who taught me.

Have an awesome school year! And never underestimate the transformational power you possess!

Longenecker is a Distinguished University Professor of Management and director of the Center for Leadership and Organizational Excellence in the College of Business and Innovation. He received a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a master of business administration degree from UT in 1977 and 1978, respectively. Send your thoughts and suggestions to clinton.longenecker@utoledo.edu.