Be honest. Be clear. But above all, be passionate.
During a Fall Teaching Conference session that featured five Harvard undergraduates, this dictum appeared more often and more emphatically than any other. Students preferred TFs who were enthusiastic, engaging, entertaining, and excited about what they were teaching – in a word, passionate. They even went so far as to recommend how to perform passion in the classroom:
- Connect an out-of-class passion with in-class topics. Love camping or mixology? Point out that you sometimes think about the chemistry of caramelization while cooking smores over the campfire, or relate your efforts to recreate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite libation. Students like a multi-dimensional teacher, and your ability to bring your extracurricular interests to bear on course materials will encourage students to do the same.
- Make an investment in your students. “Passion” might not be the best word for this – insert professional conduct warning here – but putting some effort into developing relationships with your students can pay off. Knowing your students’ names by the end of the first class helps them feel at ease, more willing to participate, and more likely to engage intellectually. (See our recent post for details on speedy name memorization.) Our panelists remarked that they didn’t see the point in teachers asking them to write their name, year, house, concentration, hometown, etc. on an index card if the teacher was just going to forget that information anyway. But teachers who asked them what they hoped to learn, how they learned most effectively, and what prior experience they had in the subject matter both gathered useful information and got the students thinking reflectively about their coming experience in the course. Similarly, our panelists felt that one-on-one meetings were only useful if teachers followed up with proof that they had actually learned something about their student from the meeting. But teachers who were able to draw on a student’s hobby or concentration in class made a deeper impression, both in terms of strengthening a rapport and engaging the student pedagogically.
- Reveal the passion that led you to become a scholar in the field. Students see themselves – or one potential self – in their teachers. If you can make the case for engagement in your field with enough energy and sincerity, your students might be more likely to imagine themselves walking in your shoes, which could translate into their own “performance” of scholarship in their coursework. And at the very least, they’ll know you love what you do, making the classroom a more positive and productive place for all.