[Posted for the Virtual Conference on Core Values]
The center of my classroom is the same as the center of any relationship I have: respect (here is the obligatory link to the song). The healthiest relationships are built around the notion that every person comes with his or her own set of priorities, likes, dislikes, fears, and loves. Nobody likes to be told what to do; everybody likes to be autonomous. Since teaching is a relationship, I try to honor the students’ autonomies as much as possible.
Although there must be some huge educational gains from showing your students this sort of respect, this is less of an educational goal than a moral one: first and foremost, I have a class of actual human beings, and they should be treated as such.
To be sure, this is an aspirational goal for me. I find that much of our education system is disrespectful of students, and this is a bit of an uphill climb. At the very least, most of the choices made in most classrooms are made by the teacher, not the students, making the students feel like they do not have much agency over this portion of their lives. I am of this system, so it is easy for me to make choices for my students and difficult for me to recognize when I do so. But being aware of this is my first step toward improving.
I am certain that I fail more often than I would like, and I am certain that other people are better at respecting their students. But here are several small examples of ways that I work to respect my students
- I am working to minimize grading in my classroom. My assumption is that all of my students want to do well, want to learn, and want to succeed. Because of this, I feel there is no need to bribe students with points to do what is good for them.
- I am working to maximize the amount of choice students have on homework assignments. I try to give them choice both on which problems they do and how many problems they do. This is made easier when you follow the SBG tenet of not grading homework.
- Similarly, I try to give my students a choice on exams. I might give them seven problems, but only ask that they do four of them. This requires some engineering of the exam to make sure you are testing everything that you want to test, but it is not too difficult.
- Every student gets to decide (within a fixed range) how their final grade will be determined. Instead of saying “The final exam will be worth 15% of your final grade,” the student can choose the final exam to be worth anywhere from, say, 10% to 25% of his or her final grade. Each student gets to customize his or her grade in this way. Best of all, this only requires 30 extra seconds for each student at the beginning of the semester to change the formula in Excel.
- The students (as a class) choose the number of midterms. Again, I give them a range from which to choose (usually 1-4 midterms), but the students get the final decision.
- Students (as a class) choose the dates of their exams (except for the final, which the registrar decides). That way, they can make sure that they have no weeks where they have midterms in all of their classes.
- Students choose the due dates for their assignments. If we expect students to do quality work, we should give them enough time to do it. They know what “enough time” is better than we do. I will sometimes even not give a deadline—students just hand in the assignment when they are done.
- I ask for midsemester feedback, but I then report on the results and act on it whenever I can. Not all of the students’ requests should be done (as a professional, I still need to make sure I am doing what is best for them, me, and the college), but they always give me at least a couple of ideas that are genuine improvements. Even if the class suggests something that is only a lateral move, I try to do it.
This is all in addition to showing them respect in the usual ways (e.g. “Don’t talk down to students,” “Don’t be unfair,” etc). My goal is to treat my students as I would a colleague who is less experienced than I am in the field.
If I were reading this post ten years ago, I would have been skeptical. I teach college students, and they sometimes make bad choices (so do I, but that is not the issue right now). I have two things to say to my younger self:
- These bad decisions still happen, but they happen a lot less frequently than you think. Plus, students make bad decisions when I don’t give them the freedom to make the decisions, so it is not like this is an alternative to an existing utopia.
- Part of my job is to help them learn to make responsible decisions. This is impossible to do unless the students are given the opportunity to make actual decisions.
Please comment if you have ideas—big or small—on how to better show students respect.