What would a master teacher do? I found myself asking this question before I tuned in to watch Dr. Kris Roush’s Magna 20-Minute Mentor video “How Do Master Teachers Create a Positive Classroom?” I really liked how Dr. Roush (2015) promised to share “specific suggestions about how to make your teaching experience more creative, optimistic, and enthusiastic—how to use a bit more humor in the classroom, and how to become a little more approachable to your students” (p. 1). She then used her lecture to outline the five qualities of a “Lighthearted Professor:” the term she has coined to “describe the master teacher who excels in the areas of creativity, optimism, enthusiasm, approachability, and humor” (p. 2).
Creativity in the Classroom
Some instructors struggle to maintain enthusiasm after teaching the same classes term after term. One way to fend off boredom is to inject your classes with some creative energy. Dr. Roush (2015) has three suggestions for adding such creativity to your classroom: collaborative group work, props, and discussing “amazing, controversial or leading-edge” material related to your class (p.3).
Although collaborative group work may not be a part of your online classroom, you may want to encourage your students to review the discussions of different peers each week. As the instructor, you will also want to do this, so students feel that they are getting adequate attention and feedback from you on the discussion boards.
We may not be able to bring props to class, but we can share materials that connect students to current issues. You can share these materials with the entire class, or you may choose to personalize these depending on the various majors in your class. For example, I often share the physical inactivity calculator with human resource students. (It shows how much sedentary employees cost a company.) I give the link to Sheryl WuDunn’s TED Talk on the global oppression of women to my international development students. Nursing students receive the YouTube link to Dr. Gabor Maté’s lecture on Self Care for Caregivers, and the address to Sugata Mitra’s Wiki is frequently shared with education students.
Note that some not-so-cutting edge material may also captivate your students, like listening to William Faulkner being interviewed at the University of Virginia. Thoughtful conversations inevitably result from these links, videos, tools, and interviews. More importantly, offering personalized resources to students shows that you are tuned into them as individuals and that you want to encourage their academic pursuits.
One of the best graduation speeches I have ever heard was given by a beloved communication instructor. She got up on stage in front of her colleagues and former students and talked about her near failure in a martial arts class. She shared how much she learned from the experience and how that barely passing grade meant so much to her. It may sound funny, but sharing our own questions, ideas, works-in-progress, or even failures with students can bring optimism to the classroom. We tend to forget how students view us, so making ourselves a bit more human (and less omniscient) can change the climate of our classrooms. I distinctly remember how my literature professor had a physics student explain parabolic motion to the class. The entire class was moved to see the professor take a seat in the front row and proceed to show genuine interest and appreciation for the student’s expertise. It was an important lesson in life-long learning and it also taught us that professors don’t have to know everything.
Roush (2015) also recommends sharing previous student successes to inject optimism into the classroom (p. 6). Let your students know that yes, the material is difficult, but yes, others have succeeded. Maybe students have struggled with the first few modules, but they were able to pull it together and still achieve a strong grade. Maybe you or some of your contemporaries struggled with certain subjects. A dear friend of mine nearly destroyed her grade point average after taking a History of Rock and Roll class during her senior year. She is now a surgeon.
Let Your Enthusiasm Show
Dr. Roush (2015) reminds us to exhibit our excitement for course material. I remember listening to a professor lecturing on what she said was her favorite topic. You never would have been able to tell that it was her favorite, because her voice was flat and displayed no emotion. Keep this in mind if you are creating micro lectures or Jing screencasts for your students, as your enthusiasm is contagious. If you are not speaking in your online classroom, consider how you can enliven your written material. Are there stories you can relate to the course content? Did you just finish an incredible book or see a phenomenal documentary? Consider the captivating teachers in your own educational experience. How did they inspire and excite you to follow in their footsteps?
Approachability & Humor
Dr. Roush (2015) also recommends being approachable and using humor in the classroom (pp. 9-15). I think these two items can go together, as students tend to feel like I am more approachable when I use humor. For example, I beg students to use the Support & Help link in the online classroom for technical issues because I brought a typewriter to college. I may tell students in my introduction that I like to ride my bicycle and do Vinyasa yoga, but not simultaneously. Show your students how accessible you are by telling them that you check My Messages daily, and let your students be pleasantly surprised by your sense of humor in those messages.
Give Students Your Endorsement
Dr. Roush (2015) posed the following question: “How many successful college graduates look back on their college experience and are thankful for the college professor who believed in them?” (p. 5). With that in mind, consider encouraging your students to become leaders in their field. I like to make assumptions that student work in the classroom can and will make meaningful change in their communities. For example, I had a Hmong student who wrote a literature review about barriers to health care in the Hmong community. I asked her if she had ever considered creating a website geared toward the Hmong community. The website could debunk myths about Western medicine, share important preventive health information, and provide contact information for Hmong practitioners in the community.
Showing that you believe in your students can go a long way to inspire them. Let’s continue to use our roles as educators to inspire excellence. Here’s to creative, enthusiastic, and optimistic courses for you and your students in 2017!