Art of Teaching | John Jay College of Criminal Justice
Art of Teaching

Art of Teaching

It’s easy to find people with ideas about writing a syllabus, using technology, special needs students, work assignments, grading rubrics, and classroom management. But little of this will tell you what to actually do in the classroom. Mind you, this page won’t either. Nobody can tell you exactly what to do, because there is an art to teaching that involves improvisation. But there is some advice I can offer. Take it with a grain of salt, but hopefully you’ll find at least some of this useful.

There is a study by Ambady and Rosenthal (1993) in which students were shown 10-second clips of professors. The students were then asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the professors. The ratings given by these students were nearly identical to those given by students who had been taught by the same professor for an entire semester. The same results happened when the videos were silent and cut down to just 2 seconds!

I know that no effective professors sit at a desk reading from an open textbook in front of them. No matter the pedagogical theories and classroom prep, students value professors who appear lively. Students pick up on qualities like enthusiasm, likability, warmth, confidence, competence, and a supportive demeanor.

The Presentation of Self

Part of teaching is acting. Like it or not, in the classroom you are a performer. But unlike most performers, you have a captive audience. Use that to your advantage, but don’t take it for granted. Perhaps the most important thing is not to be boring. Of course that is easier said than done. And how you “entertain” is entirely up to you. Don’t assume a somber class atmosphere is somehow more “professional.” Healthy laughter in a class is always a good sign.

Students are paying good money to learn from you. The least you can do is treat their commitment in time and effort with respect. A teacher can be entertaining and not particularly good...but it’s almost impossible for a dull teacher to be effective. Most important, have fun. A fun and intellectual learning environment can be contagious. If you enjoy teaching, students will reply in kind.

Your job, in part, is to entertain your students. Not for the purpose of entertainment, but with the goal of learning. A sleeping student certainly isn’t learning. And blaming students for not learning despite your innate brilliance is a cop-out. If nothing else, keep your students awake. A sleeping student isn’t good for you, the appearance of your classroom, or the student. If students can’t stay awake, they shouldn’t be in the classroom (Professor Wynn has an alternative view in Classroom Management). And when a student really needs to sleep — and sleep deprivation is common among our students — the classroom isn’t the place for quality Z’s.

Students can describe professors in a few words. And they will describe you. But it is up to you how you wish to be described. There are a few basic categories by which most professors are described. There are different personalities you can present as a professor. Pick one or a combination that most comes naturally to you. If nothing comes naturally, do your best and have fun. Part of the job is improvising and making things up as you go!

No online module can tell you what role you should try to play as a professor. It’s dependent on you and your personality. But whatever your personality, keep in mind that during class, you are onstage, like it or not, with a captive audience. Make the most of that and enjoy it.

Firm but Fair

I've been called “firm but fair.” The phrase strikes me as a bit of corny cliché, but if that’s how students judge me, I’m fine with that. Perhaps it goes back to my favorite teachers in high school and college. They came off as tough and unforgiving at the beginning and gradually opened up. I try to do the same. One can always get softer over the course of a semester, but it is very difficult to get harder. On the first day of class, I even wear a tie (something I rarely do) and try to come off like a hard-ass. I do not want or need to become friends with my students. (Mind you, one of the most satisfying aspects of teaching is the students with whom I became and remain good friends!)

I purposely do not take a hand-holding approach to most students. Is this mean? Perhaps. But students will always try to push teachers to see what they can get away with (I don’t hold that against them. It’s human nature. It can also be fun.) I like to nip such attempts in the bud. Short of family deaths, I rarely accept excuses for late papers. Nor do I allow for “excused” absences (except for jury duty and military training). We all have excuses, sometimes very good ones. But students still need to be in class. Besides, what if a student has a very good reason to miss half the classes? My attitude is that if students can’t make it to class, they shouldn’t be enrolled. Have there been some legitimate excuses I’ve been unsympathetic to? Probably. But much more often, I simply prevent student procrastination and enforce good study habits. If you make your policies clear, students will rarely complain.

The Friend

Usually the most loved teachers come off as empathetic, friendly, and supportive, particularly if the teacher is a woman. But if that doesn’t come naturally, don’t fake it. There’s a fine line between caring about your students and getting involved in tragic stories of family woe you can do little to change. And though it may mean you’re a better human being, helping won’t necessarily make you a better teacher. (Besides, we are not paid to be social workers.) If you want to help your students with non-classroom issues, who am I to tell you not to? But be aware that you could be in for far more than you expected. Also, you might legally be required to break your confidence. The law now requires you to report instances of domestic violence.

It can be difficult for an empathetic person to draw a line about appropriate and inappropriate themes and discussions. You can and should refer students to the college services that are available. And keep in mind that some students will never ask for help, even when they should. If you notice a sudden drop in performance or attendance, sometimes the smallest gesture can have a huge effect.

One student was doing well until the last two weeks of class. Then she stopped attending and turned in a failing paper on the last day of class. I sent her an email saying I was both disappointed and concerned. She wrote back, saying she was simply touched that I had noticed something was wrong. She never explained what had happened, nor did she ever ask for sympathy or help. Unprompted, I offered her a two-week extension to write an acceptable final paper so she could pass the class with a decent grade. She did. I still have no idea what happened, and that’s OK. But I like to think I helped her out through difficult times.

The Egghead

Perhaps you’re quite nerdy and not particularly charismatic. That’s fine. Teaching isn’t a popularity contest. You don’t have to be as cool as your students. Nor should you try, because in your students’ eyes you will never be too cool for school. There is nothing wrong with being a poorly dressed, nerdy academic. That’s what a professor is supposed to be!

And your more introverted students may appreciate the calm confidence of an introverted, intellectual professor. When you teach, you can play the role of professor to a T. It’s OK to be a bit scatterbrained, smoke a pipe (outside class, anyway), and wear tweed jackets with patches on the arms. In some ways, the egghead professor fulfills a role students love.

But if you’re an egghead, make sure you’re a passionate one!

The Practitioner

Real-life experience—as a cop, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, or whatever—is a huge advantage in the classroom. Having walked the walk allows you to talk the talk. You got hired for your expertise, and it gives you knowledge and confidence that work in your favor. But war stories only go so far. In the college classroom, you’re a professor first, and everything else comes after that, no matter what you feel in your heart.

There’s nothing wrong with being a practitioner, but make sure to combine your firsthand experience with a bit of perspective and some techniques and attitudes from the other professorial traits listed above: firm but fair, friend, and egghead.

Be wary of presenting yourself as anti-intellectual, somebody who knows how it really goes down. If you are a practitioner, think of how skeptical you are of civilians who come to your job and telling you how to do it. If you keep saying, “The book says this, but the author doesn't know what he’s talking about,” you might be right, but then why are you using a bad book? Or maybe a close reading of the book might teach you something you don’t know.

You don’t need to prove you’re the coolest or smartest guy or girl in the classroom. Even if it’s true, let your students reach that conclusion on their own. Be particularly on guard against macho tendencies you have. This is not about being overly concerned with political correctness (though it is part of it), but a joke that might kill at work — a casual reference to somebody’s race, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, or sexual identity — might not only be against university regulation (and sometimes the law), but also rude to students who have a right to be comfortable in their class. (That said, I’ve found CUNY students are New Yorkers who appreciate a good joke and are not easily offended.) Certainly there can be a time and place for a bit of swaggering, but it’s probably not in the classroom. What is appropriate in your full-time job can go very wrong in the college environment. And for God’s sake, don’t flirt with students.

The Variables of Teaching

No matter which professorial character best describes you, think of teaching as a collection of certain independent variables. Some of these variables have a good and bad side of the spectrum. For instance, it is better to be lively than boring. It is also better to be knowledgeable about your subject matter than ignorant.

But other variables are more subjective. There is not a clear right and wrong way to teach. Are hard graders “better” than easy graders? It depends. The same is true of a classroom geared toward learning facts compared with one geared toward creative thinking. While we’d all like to inspire our students to love the course material and continue a lifetime of learning, sometimes facts must be known.

Part of the problem with teaching is that it’s hard to know if you’re doing a good job. Except for griping about the length of readings, students will rarely offer you even the most gentle and constructive criticism (mostly for fear of grading retribution). But if you understand your own style and what you as a professional wish to accomplish, you can better evaluate your own performance. On one hand, if you think facts are just going to be forgotten and class is best unstructured and free-flowing, then you ought to be worried if the students are unresponsive, texting in class, or exhibiting a collective bladder-control problem. If, on the other hand, you believe in drilling facts and figures, you should be worried when half the class fails a quiz.

Evaluations

Of course there are those pesky teacher and student evaluations. I receive quite favorable evaluations, and yet I still feel relief only after those forms are filled out. Suddenly I feel like I have free rein (within the bounds of common sense and law) to do whatever I want: I can be rude; I can tell the students what I really think; I can yell at them; I can give them failing grades! Of course I do none of this. I continue to teach as I always do. And every year their evaluations stress me less and less. Certainly tenure has something to do with this, but so does experience, confidence, and ability.

Students are not out to "get" you any more than you’re out to get them. Your evaluation will probably be fine. And if a few students don’t like you, by the time a pencil fills the bubble, there’s nothing you can do it. But if your evaluations are uniformly negative — or even very mixed — there is, as they say, room for improvement. If most of your students think you’re not a good teacher, there are classroom issues that need to be resolved. Talk to other professors. Sit in some other classrooms. Observe different styles and learn from them. Ask other people you know to sit in your class.

As part of my job, I've observed dozens of other professors. Almost all have been very good to excellent. One or two, however, were bad. The first indication of a problem was being bored. These professors were not comfortable in their own professorial skin. As a result, they came off as overly formal and seemed to hide behind their suit and tie. Talking to these professors outside of class, they were relaxed and far more engaging. As clichéd as it sounds: be yourself. Maybe not the same self you are at the bar with your buddies, but yourself as you normally talk to people one-on-one. And if being comfortable and confident in your own skin doesn’t come naturally to you in the classroom, then you need to put on a show and act.

I’ve heard rumors, certainly all false, that some professors tell students they're going to be easy simply for the purpose of getting high marks on the student evaluations. This tactic works far less than you'd think. (Besides, have some dignity!) While certainly some professors may be disliked for being "too" tough, professors are also disliked for being too easy.

Any potential "softy bonus" in evaluations is miniscule compared to the basic differences between a good and a bad teacher. Students respect a tough but fair professor. And good students resent being catered to. It’s one thing to be a soft grader on papers. It’s another to make a class so easy that no learning takes place. Most students want to be challenged and pushed — even forced — to learn. Treat you class as the most important they're taking and they may believe it is!

And if you do get a negative review or two, have thick skin and don’t take it personally. While you can't please all your students all of the time, you can certainly please most students them most of the time.

Lecture

I mentally divide actually classroom instruction into four general categories: lecture, discussion, student presentation, and group activity. These are discussed in other modules, but I would like to touch on the first two categories, which form the bulk of classroom instruction. While you should focus on what you do best, do not shy away from alternative methods.

Different techniques are useful tools at different times. I, for instance, dislike group activity. I never liked it as a student and I’m not particularly fond of it as a professor. And yet on the rare occasion (usually once or twice a semester) when do ask my students to do a group activity, they seem to love it. Other professors love group activity. And once when I was late to class and needed a few moments to get my act together, I made up a group activity on the spot. It worked like a charm.

Lecture is the most old-fashioned and traditional style of teaching. Though often disparaged for exactly these reasons, a good lecture is always appreciated. It is also an art. Lectures are especially appropriate when class size is too large for productive discussion (I would put that number at above 25-30 students). What a class is too large, as many of ours are, even a seemingly good discussion actually only involves a small handful of students. Are the rest of the students even paying attention? Can the even hear what is being said?

When I started teaching in 2004, I didn’t use powerpoint. This was because when I was a student, I had never seen a powerpoint I actually liked. I fashioned myself then as a more a chalk-and-blackboard kind of professor. Besides, powerpoint can overly structure a class and makes it difficult to take alternative routes to the same destination.

One day, perhaps because I hadn’t prepared adequately, I decided to use the prepared powerpoint provided by the publisher. It covered — rather poorly, I thought — a chapter from an Introduction to Policing textbook. At the end of class I asked the students if they would prefer me to continue to use the book's powerpoints on continue in the manner which I had assumed was stellar (if a bit old-fashioned). The class was unanimous in support of the powerpoint. Yes, literally each and every one of the 32 students. Lesson learned.

Now I rely extensively on powerpoint. Though not for every class. There is little point to using powerpoint if I'm hellbent on leading an hour's discussion. But I do use powerpoint partly because students expect it and partly because I’m convinced it helps students learn. Also, in place of the whiteboard, I sometimes type in Word during class. It keeps my hands clean and I can type faster than I can write, and the whiteboard doesn’t have spellcheck. And I have bad handwriting.

But I wasn’t completely wrong in my initial assessment of publisher provided powerpoints. They are generally horrible. Do not read your powerpoint slides. The slides are meant to supplement your lesson, not be a crutch. Be the Jackie Chan of powerpoint: make all your own slides. Keep it simple. Keep it visually appealing. Do not be afraid to include pictures or videos. Even if you do use the book's powerpoint as a starting point, you can do better by making the presentation look like your own. Avoid background colors and childish transitions.

Discussion

Effective discussion can be the most difficult and rewarding teaching method. As an added benefit, a discussion-oriented class can require less prep-work than a well developed lecture. But relying on discussion to cover for lack of prep can backfire miserably if a teacher rolls the dice that things will go well and comes up with snake-eyes. Keep this in mind before you convince yourself that student discussion and presentation should be the bulk of your class: But when is the last time you’ve ever seen a student take notes on what another student said?

Here are some good tactics to encourage discussion. One tried and true trick is to simply arrange students in a circle. It works surprisingly well. A circle prevents students from hiding in the back row and shakes things up a bit in term of the normal classroom environment. It also tells your class that for this class period, you’re committed to class discussion so they might as well make the best of it. Plus, when sitting in a circle, it’s easier to learn students’ names (which by all means you should).

To get discussion rolling you can start with a general topic or ask each student, in order, a specific question. When it goes well, you can sit back as a moderator. But discussion does not always go well. And then you need a backup plan. Have specific questions ready. Or even a group activity. But don’t be afraid of long silences. Eventually somebody will speak up. It doesn’t have to be you. Playing a brief video can be effective to jump start discussion. And keep in mind that it is almost inevitable, in a “free-flowing” discussion, that a few students will do most of the talking. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the goal should be more rather than less inclusive participation. Still, if a few students are respectful and say interesting things, there’s little harm in having them talk the most. Just be sure they're not bullying others out of contributing.

One essential part of effective class discussion is students who have done the assigned readings. Students who have not done the reading will generally remain silent. In my seminar classes, I assign short reading responses for each class’s readings. This is in lieu of a final exam. The downside, aside from initial students’ complaints (by the end of the semester most rather like the system), is the time commitment to read, correct, edit, and grade such assignments. It is more work for me outside of class, but class time because much easier and more rewarding when students are up-to-date on the readings.

During discussion, some professors shy away from expressing their own opinion believing it to be irrelevant to class discussion or an unfortunate way to silence those with alternative opinions. An off-the-cuff disparaging comment toward Obama, or Al Sharpton, or the police, can go a long way to poisoning class environment. In a diverse classroom setting, there is no such thing as a universally held opinion. This is especially true when dealing with New York City students, especially those with an interest in criminal justice!

But I prefer to be honest about my opinions. Partly this is because I do not believe I can successful hide them over the course of the semester. And partly I hope students can learn from how I present my experience and opinions, even if they disagree. Ideally I want students' opinions to span the range of possible opinions, but this is not always the case. So I will be quick to play devil’s advocate.

If a student says something inappropriate or offensive, you have a few options: 1) you may say nothing and hope it's a one-off (it can be, but rarely is it); 2) you may say something immediately; 3) you can say something later. Certainly if a comment bothers you, you should say something. If a comment offends others, you should say something both to the offender or to he or she who might be offended (though probably not at the same time). This goal isn't to blame a student but to keep a situation from getting out of hand or having a student completely disengage. A quiet word to a student after class, either explaining why what they said is inappropriate or that you sense they were bothered, can work wonders.

Keep in mind that what some students believe to be commonly held beliefs can be offensive and wrong. Other times students may be trying honestly to bring up an issue, but lack the politically correct ways of doing so. Still other time it may be the use of a word such as “bitch” or “nigga.” I simply tell students not to use the word, even when it is not intended to offend. As to general curse words, they sometimes slip from my mouth, but I enforce a no-swearing policy on my students. When a student uses a bad word (which is inevitable if you use the same word), I simply inform my class not to use word. I acknowledge I do, but I can. Because it’s my class.

Once I had a student, a police officer, say disparaging things about people in public housing. At the time I simple informed him and the class that that “factual” part of his statement wasn’t true. But after class I took him aside and explained that in all likelihood he was insulting people in class who lived in public housing. He didn’t seem to have any idea that kids from public housing could even go to college (police officers who grow up and live in Long Island can have a very limited views of the urban neighborhoods they police). I wasn't denying what he had seen as a police officer, but I made it clear that such observations were both wrong and offensive when applied to individuals, especially my students.

Other times a student will say good things, but simply talk too much. Of course "too much" is subjective. You will like students who contribute to class discussion, but once a student dominates the conversation or become too predictable in his or her comments — often the line is crossed when other students begin to roll their eyes — you need to do something. Talk to the student after class and say you need him or her to speak a bit less. Often students who talk too much are simply trying to please.

Videos

Showing videos is one of my signature moves as a professor. I play as many five-minute videos as I can (related to the subject matter, of course). I try and play at least one a class, and rarely more than two. My favorites are by comedians Ali G and Chris Rock and also scenes from The Wire. The first time I played videos which included language and subject material I myself would not say in the classroom, I worried about students finding them pointless at best, or offensive, racist, or sexist at worst. More than a thousand students later, I have yet to receive one complaint.

And many students have said it’s their favorite part of my class. This may say more about me than the videos, but either way, I keep showing videos. I try and avoid youtube videos for tech-related reasons (and because I don’t like ads in a classroom setting). But granted, preparing your own video files takes both work and technical ability. Legally, you are covered by Fair Use. But having your own video files gives you control, does not require an internet connection, and has fewer tech hassles.

When you do use tech, and you should, if at all possible, make sure you things are working before class starts. Nothing sets a worse tone than everybody sitting around in silence when the professor can’t figure out how to get sound working or finds that the video clip won’t play in the selected media player (VLC player is generally your best bet.)

Also, it’s a good rule of thumb to not show any youtube video you haven’t personally vetted. The one your student recommends probably won’t be pornographic, but his or her opinion of “subject-related” may differ significantly from your won.

 

by Peter Moskos