By Doug Ward
Good teaching often starts with a simple greeting to students.
A simple hello will work. A smile helps. So does body language that signals a willingness to work with students. That recognition — both inside and outside the classroom — can go a long way toward engaging students and setting the tone for an assignment, a class or even a college career.
We can’t forget that. Stellar lesson plans, carefully chosen readings and incisive questions mean little if students aren’t engaged. That doesn’t mean that every instructor needs a cult of personality. Not at all. It simply means that an instructor needs to show human elements that students can relate to. They have to connect in some way.
At a discussion at CTE in the spring, a group of freshmen explained just how important that is. During their first semester, those freshmen were trying to find their place on campus: Where did they belong? Did they belong? How would they know?
One drove home the point this way: A few weeks into her first semester, she was still feeling unsure about herself and about KU. When one of her professors smiled and greeted her in the hallway one day, though, she felt validated. Her professor recognized her. He knew who she was. He said hello. That simple acknowledgment made her feel that she had a place on campus.
Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise made a similar point in their opening plenary at the annual Teaching Summit last month.
Good pedagogy is important, Blaich said, but students need professors who make connections with them. They notice instructors who experiment with teaching and pay attention to students. They seek them out, and they learn from them.
“Being human and being present for them is a really important thing,” Blaich said.
A Gallup-Purdue Index Report released earlier this year further reinforced that idea. Students who felt that their professors connected with them, cared about them and made them excited about learning were far more likely to succeed in college. That held true whether colleges were large or small, public or private.
The connectedness lasted long after college, the report said, doubling the likelihood that graduates were engaged in their jobs and felt an overall sense of well-being.
None of that is surprising, but it provides a reminder of the important role that instructors play in the lives of college students. Simple acts of humanity pay dividends in students’ engagement, learning and long-term success.
That’s worth keeping in mind the next time we walk into a classroom, reply to email or see a student in the hallway.
Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.