Four Traits of Great College Instructors

( Reprinted with permission from )

… or, how getting straight C’s puts you at the top of the class.

First, my thanks go out to Mark Williams from the Illinois State Board of Education. As Division Administrator for Career Development & Preparation, Mark provided the keynote address to a large group of Career and Technical Education (CTE) professionals gathered at our college. While his remarks focused on CTE education, much of his message applied to teaching in general.

Read on and see if you agree that compassion, courage, candor, and contemplation are the 4 C’s for teaching greatness.

Why do Some Teachers Fail?

“Nemo dat quod non habet.” That was the subtitle on one of Mark’s slides. There were more than 200 of us in the audience. I looked around the room and wondered, “Am I the only one who has not studied Latin? It must mean something important.” Perhaps, if I had watched a few more television crime dramas I might have heard this phrase before. Do you know what it means? Yes? Wow, I am impressed.

A simple Google search enlightened me. I found several translations which I will summarize this way. One can’t give away what one doesn’t own. It refers to a court ruling. Basically, it means you have no right to be upset if the cops take away the new 52 inch Sony HD TV you bought last night for $80 from a guy wearing sunglasses and driving the rusty 1991 Chevy van with out-of-state plates parked down the street.

Surprise, surprise! Guess what? “Nemo dat quod non habet” is also the Adjunct Assistance Mantra. It has been so since day one; I just never expressed it that way. (Okay, you’re right. I didn’t know how to say it in Latin.) But one of my messages all along has been that you can’t teach if you don’t have the qualities of a good teacher. Or, you can’t give students a good education if you don’t have/own the innate abilities to be a good teacher.

In his address, Mark referred to the “4 C’s of the Teacher.” These, he told us, were Compassion, Courage, Candor and Contemplation. Wow! Wish I had thought of that! I immediately realized I had to share this with you. This message is completely consistent with the Adjunct Assistant Admonitions (AAA) I have been sharing with you. You know what the AAA is don’t you? That’s right, the AAA is the best in emergency roadside assistance as you motor down the highway of college teaching. You didn’t know that? What did you think it stood for?

So, why do some teachers fail? They fail because they lack the four C’s. These may not be the only reasons teachers fail, but Mark’s 4 C’s are important factors.

Teaching with Compassion

Compassion comes from Latin (I know, here we go again). “Com” can be translated as “with” and precedes the Latin word for “to suffer.” In other words, compassion means, to suffer with. Do our students suffer? Yes. Do we suffer when they suffer? In one way or another, the answer is yes. Does that mean we are compassionate? Maybe yes but maybe no, at least not by today’s most common definition of the word. Some instructors suffer because of their students, not with them.

Most English dictionaries translate compassion something like this (I am paraphrasing): Compassion is the nature of being sympathetic to the plights of others with a true desire to help. Almost all instructors suffer when their students suffer, but sometimes that suffering manifests itself as anger toward students rather than sympathy and a desire to help them.

So what does it mean to be a compassionate college instructor? In my opinion it means:

1. caring about your students;
2. getting to know them;
3. being aware of and sensitive to their struggles; and
4. adapting your teaching methods to their needs.

Don’t think for a minute that compassionate teachers are easy graders or sympathetic softies. They do not extend special favors to students no matter how compelling the circumstances. If their syllabus states that late assignments will not be accepted, compassionate teachers don’t make exceptions. That would not be fair to other students who failed to get work in on time. If extra credit opportunities are not provided to all, compassionate teachers do not give them to the few students they want to help. The point is that compassion in teaching must be balanced with equity and upholding the standards set by you and your college.

Teaching with Courage

For a college instructor, courage means many things. As an aside, if you have not read Parker Palmer’s book, The Courage to Teach, I encourage you to do so. Palmer took a spiritual (not to be confused with religious) look at teaching and challenged his readers to look inward to explore who they are as a teacher.

Mark talked about the courage to fight obstacles and engage students. I believe courage can be summarized by the Serenity Prayer, which I cited in my article entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective College Adjuncts. Here it is:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can change, and wisdom to know the difference.”

In this article, I introduced Stephen Covey’s first habit of highly effective people, which was “Be Proactive.” Being proactive often requires courage. It takes courage to do what is right when obstacles stand in the way. Will my students rebel? Will the department chair disagree? Is what needs to be done out of the norm?

Teaching with courage does not, however, mean bucking the system. You must work within the system. If you disagree with a policy, don’t simply ignore it. That is not courage. That is a disrespectful, irresponsible, violation of work rules. Let me be more frank. That is ignorant, unfounded, self-destructive rebellion. Can you spell F-I-R-E-D? Okay, so we don’t fire adjuncts. We dismiss them, we find a replacement, and we do not hire them back.

Teaching with Candor

Mark talked about candor in the context of telling the truth. Candor can also be defined as the ability to make judgments fairly, free from discrimination or dishonesty. Teachers who are candid with their students are honest and straightforward in everything they say and do. Students, make that all students, are dealt with equitably. And these students know where they stand at all times.

I hear students complain that they don’t know how they are doing in a course. Some tell me their teacher was not returning graded assignments in timely fashion. Sometimes they claim there have been no graded assignments. Candor in teaching demands more than telling the truth. You must give your students prompt, ongoing assessments of where they stand.

Please note that candor does not mean criticism. Teachers who criticize their students point out their faults in a manner that places blame on those students. Candor is not about blame. Candid teachers objectively assess their students’ performance and report it without conveying negative messages. Through words and actions, they do not send messages like, “You are stupid” or “You are lazy.” This is not candor. These are personal attacks that alienate students and almost never motivate them to do better.

Contemplating Your Teaching

Mark said contemplation means taking the time to think. I agree; very well put. How often we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of our lives away from teaching and fail to step back to reflect. Thinking about how you are doing as an instructor is a vital part of contemplation. I am reminded of an experience a university history professor once shared with me. As he dismissed class he became overwhelmed with the “contemplative” realization that he had failed as an instructor that day. As the expression goes, he had laid an egg. He ran out the door and down the hallway trying to catch his students to apologize and provide his pledge to do better next class.

Contemplation can take many other forms. It can be spending time thinking about why your students did poorly on the last exam. It can involve searching for new classroom activities to better engage your students. Regardless, it is driven by the belief that you can always do better; there is always room for improvement.

On the other hand, the failure to contemplate can be compared to the ostrich who sticks his head in the sand. It feels better to ignore the situation and hope it goes away. It seems easier than confronting the situation head on. Besides, just thinking about what might be a problem can be scary. Rationalization can take over. Heck, maybe you were imaging things. Maybe all is well after all. If your students haven’t come to you to complain, all is well. Right? What do you think?

Contemplation is part of learning. Don’t believe me? Then take it from one of the best. Late Northern Illinois University professor, Robert Smith, created a graduate course he called Learning How to Learn. According to Smith, when learning has occurred, the learner should process that information and reflect on how he or she learned. In this way, the learner gains self-awareness that can lead to new, more effective learning strategies. This is a form of contemplation. Smith’s method requires asking probing questions. For those contemplating teachers, the ones who take the time to think, this is one way to make that solo think tank a vat of premium teaching brew.

A new Adjunct Assistance College Teaching Mantra?

Sometimes I really amuse myself, like with the preceding sentence. Sorry if I didn’t amuse you too because that is really part of my goal. Anyway, let me summarize. A good college instructor is someone who:

1. is compassionate yet fair and equitable to all students;
2. has the courage to do what is right;
3. provides students with candid, frequent, ongoing feedback; and
4. continuously contemplates ways in which he or she can be a better teacher.

Think about what you are doing as a college instructor and how well you are doing it. Feel free to ask others for advice. This is a good thing. But in the end, it boils down to what you yourself believe. Stop. Find a quiet time. Contemplate. Be honest with yourself. And …

Make that solo think tank a vat of premium teaching brew.

© 2010 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Revised March 5, 2011

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