Teaching failure

17 Oct

Teachers have a powerful weapon. It’s not the power of grading, it’s the power of words.

Words can inspire. They can shape perceptions and be memorable. They can – and often do – bore and confuse.

In any one lesson, the same words could have all these effects on different members of the class. So teaching is not a linear, predictable process. It’s more like alchemy.

Humility is useful. It doesn’t matter what I teach: it’s what you learn that counts.

(An elaborate example of how we can no more understand how Stonehenge was used than a future civilization could work out the rules of cricket from the shape of Lord’s cricket ground led to ripples of mirth around my classroom of primary school aged children. All I had succeeded in doing was associate the image of the great stones to a cricket wicket with pictures of some stone age flintstone bowlers and batters in their minds.)

Only this week, I’ve had my teaching praised. I’m not good with compliments, so I’m much more worried about a complaint I recently received years after the event.

A successful graduate in the digital PR space wrote to me recalling a lesson I’d given in their second year:

During a lecture, you once told me that you didn’t think I would make it in the PR industry, an industry which has evolved thanks to the ever growing landscape of digital that now sits hand in hand with social as the main driver of buzz and reputation. You actually said I was forgettable, and I would just like to tell you I’ve never forgotten those words.

If I had said those things, I shouldn’t have – and did apologise in my reply. (It doesn’t seem likely that I could have been this personal in a lecture theatre, but students tend to use lecture/seminar/tutorial interchangeably.) But it doesn’t matter what I said: it only matters what impact my words had.

This was in 2010. I had probably been encouraging the class to wake up to the emerging opportunities in the digital landscape. My intention was to push my students to succeed, not to be personally offensive.

This graduate remembered. They took the trouble to write to me – most courteously – to correct me years later.

I’m ashamed of the short-term impact my words had. But I’m pleased that they were memorable and I’m delighted if they’ve acted as a spur to succeed.

Now, does that make me a bad teacher?

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3 Responses to “Teaching failure”

  1. Michael White (@michaelwhite1) 17/10/2017 at 2:03 pm #

    I imagine some teachers feel like they should offer a secure environment for learning, but on a partly vocational qualification like PR, this can be detrimental. In the real world, particularly when providing senior consultancy, it’s necessary to often be helpful but direct. I imagine the fast-paced nature of PR consultancy life will be a shock to many graduates, so if they’re struggling to perform at University level, then it’s the tough responsibility of the lecturer to help – even if that’s difficult to hear at first.

  2. Richard Bailey 17/10/2017 at 3:00 pm #

    That’s a good analysis, Michael. Educators tend to be risk-averse and inoffensive – which is not always ideal preparation for the real world. As you say ‘the fast-paced nature of PR consultancy life will be a shock to many graduates.’ Most adjust well, but I’ve detected a pattern in which the perfectionists (those who tend to get Firsts at university) are often those who struggle most with the challenges of a workplace in which the job in never done.

  3. Miriam Pelusi (@MiriamPelusi) 20/10/2017 at 1:29 pm #

    Judging from my own experience, I thank some memorable spurs that I received from those teachers who use emotional engagement with the students (yourself included). ‘A spur to succeed’ has a long-term impact: the student learns to be humble and, hopefully, he comes back stronger. This is a key lesson in public relations and in life, isn’t it?

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