Thursday, January 8, 2015

Do teachers have "favorites?" If so, how do you become the "favorite?"

I recently reviewed my fall 2014 student assessments of faculty, an anonymous questionnaire students can complete on our teaching. Although the majority of it was positive and complimentary, one criticism stood out to me: “Mr. Chianakas clearly has favorite students.” That’s all it said. No elaboration. I can only assume, however, that the person who wrote that did not consider him or herself one of my “favorites.” I’m taking time to reflect on that. It makes me sad if someone thinks that without good reason.

Then I looked up online reviews of one of my most inspirational professors ever, one I had for several classes back at Eureka College. I expected a perfect 5.0 “this professor is golden!” review. Sadly, she had a lot of criticism, and perhaps the biggest was that “she had favorites; and if you are not one of them, you will not get an A.”

Then I recalled a moment where I posted a comment on a former student’s Facebook page. He graduated years ago, and I told him about a student who reminds me of him and joked, “it’s hard not to want to give him an A—he’s just like you!” Then a snotty girl replied to my comment: “Yeah, you always had favorites.” Ouch. I think?

So I’m reflecting now, honestly, do I have favorites? And if so, how does a student become a “favorite?” Furthermore, how do I view those students who are not in my “favorite” category, if the above is true?

Do I have favorites? Absolutely! No, I don’t have a single favorite, but I certainly have favorites! They are the students who  participate in class, who show up virtually all of the time, who are respectful, who work hard, who smile, who can keep their phones out of sight for an hour, who genuinely try to work hard and improve all semester.

I teach communication, and I like an energetic, engaging class. I enjoy humorous exchanges with students. A classroom without laughter is like a Thanksgiving dinner without the turkey. It doesn’t feel right! I wonder if students who aren’t extroverts or outspoken see these exchanges and think: “Oh, he clearly likes X. He jokes around with X. X must be a favorite.” That’s probably true but it doesn’t mean I don’t like you!

You don’t have to be the student who makes me laugh or who speaks up in every class to be a “favorite.” I enjoy those students, but here’s what I enjoy even more: the hard-working ones who show up wanting to learn, wanting me to teach, wanting to improve their skills, trying to make connections from the classroom to how this will make careers and personal lives stronger: those students are my real favorites!

Who is not a favorite? Easy. It’s the student who misses a lot of class. It’s the one who can’t stop checking his or her damn cell phone. The ones who roll their eyes at an assignment. The ones who don’t try or don’t care. Apathy is easy to spot, and yes, an apathetic student is certainly not my favorite, but I promise I will give everything I have to erase that apathy with inspiration. And if that happens, if you were apathetic but find a reason to care (and no, not on the last week of class when you realize you’re failing), then you become one of my favorites too!

There’s a difference between being apathetic and being introverted. Both are obvious, but I respect those who are introverted (believe it or not, I’m pretty introverted when I’m not “on stage”). If I don’t crack a joke at you or ask you specifically about something in your life, it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It’s because some students are simply quiet in the classroom. There’s nothing wrong with that. The quiet ones are often my favorites too, as long as they work hard and care about learning.

So let’s get something straight: You don’t have to kiss my ass or crack a joke for me to get me to like you. Sure, I may crack a joke, but it’s not so you like me. It’s so you can (I hope) have an hour or so a day where you can LAUGH AND LEARN, where you can be comfortable, where you can discover that academics don’t have to be boring. That’s a strength of mine, I think—that I try hard to create a comfortable atmosphere. The weakness is that for those who choose to keep quiet, who sit at the back of the room, leave as quickly as possible, and never crack a smile: you may think I have favorites and that you’re not one of them.

You’re probably right, but YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE. My theory is that some don’t have it in their personalities to be sociable in the classroom. But I also argue you can still be a “favorite” no matter your personality.

Let’s end with ten very simple, common sense tips. If you don’t like that your professors have favorites or if you’ve ever felt that you weren’t one of the favorites, then try these tips. I promise that they make a difference. Trust me. I’m a communication teacher, after all :)

1. Keep eye contact during lectures and discussions. We want to know you’re paying attention.
2. Attempt a smile! Even if we’re not funny, when teachers try to make a joke, give us a smile. You’d be amazed how a classroom tone changes with a few smiles.
3. Keep cell phones on silent and out of sight. Resist checking them during class.
4. Be on time, and don’t miss classes without reasonable excuses.
5. Show a desire to improve. Read comments on work, not just the grade. Focus on those comments and you’ll see an improvement in your grade.
6. Share comments and questions. It may not be in your personality to speak up in front of the entire class, but at least make an effort to talk to your professor before or after class every now and then, even if it’s a simple, “I really enjoyed the reading you assigned. I just wanted to tell you that.”
7. Complete work on time, without excuses.
8. Never roll your eyes.
9. Take notes, especially when we ask you to do so. The student who is “above taking notes” for any reason is never a favorite. Write something down for the love of God!
10. Like cell phones, stay off laptops and tablets. We know how easy it is to be distracted and minimize Facebook when we walk by you. Some things are better old fashioned—use a notebook and pen. Or if you MUST use tech for whatever reason, at least politely ask about it. “I prefer to take notes on my tablet. I promise that’s all I am doing. Is that ok with you?” That student is already a favorite for expressing such courtesy, I guarantee! And accept the answer even if it is a no.

In short, I say this: All of my students are my favorites until THEY do something that negatively affects learning or the classroom atmosphere. Being on your phone: That’s a distraction that affects learning, for example. Your personality is irrelevant. I can adapt to the most outspoken person or to the shyest person in the classroom. Both are favorites as long as they care about learning.

And seriously, smile. Look me in the eye and smile now and then. That simple non-verbal connection goes such a long way.

What do you think? Teachers: What would you add to the list? Do you agree with my ideas on favorites? Students: Have you ever thought you weren’t a favorite? Why so? This was my fifteen minute spontaneous rant on “favorites.” I’m sure I missed a few ideas and would be happy to discuss and consider more. 

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