My good friend, Professor Steve Voguit, and I were chosen recently by the student body as Co-Professors of the Year. We were both humbled and honored to win this award together. Shortly thereafter, I engaged professor Voguit in a conversation to discuss what we shared in our teaching philosophies that would cause so many students to vote for us as their best teachers. While Professor Voguit and I do not agree on everything, the following represents what I believe and what I learned from my friend.
1. We like our students. And I might add, in part because of that, they like us. We even like those students who are not quite the students who they aspire to be. There really is no one else with whom we enjoy spending time more than our students – with the possible exception of our families.
2. We empathize with our students. Even though we are both in our 60’s, we still remember what it was like to be sitting on the other side of the teacher’s desk. When our students have a confused expression on their faces, we restate, rediscuss, and rehash the topic under consideration until that confused look magically disappears.
3. We sincerely care and have a genuine concern for the welfare of our students. Pretending to care is not enough. Students see through fake sincerity like fish see through water. If the caring were not genuine, our students would be disconnected from us. We want our students to be successful and they have no doubt about that. We want them to find something that we taught them to be useful next year and twenty years from now.
4. We have a deep-rooted, fundamental understanding of our respective disciplines. Students figure out quickly who knows what they are talking about and who does not. Through education and experience, we have developed a thorough knowledge of the subject matter that we teach. We are continuously updating ourselves in traditional and nontraditional ways. We also direct our students into researching areas which expand their understanding of our disciplines. We do not tolerate either hot air or idle chatter in our classrooms.
5. We prepare, prepare, and prepare again. Becoming a better teacher does not happen through osmosis or by accident; it takes hard work. So we prepare even though we have taught most of our classes a number of times during our careers. We also recognize that we must entertain as we teach. English Professor Emeritus Andrew Dillon offered me sound advice during my first semester at Flagler College. He said, “Judge – never forget that we are in the entertainment business.” I never have. Professor Voguit says that we are salesmen of our subject matter. When there are several ways to present the same material, we choose the most entertaining way. When we find a better way to teach something, we change our teaching method.
6. We are accessible to our students. Accessibility today is significantly different from what it was ten years ago. Students don’t come to our offices as often as they used to; instead, they send me e-mails at 3:00 A.M. and I answer them at 6:30 A.M. I am annoyed by those professors who religiously observe their office hours, but refuse to check their e-mail from Friday afternoon through Monday morning. I check mine every waking hour each week of the year. We live in the Internet Age and we need to recognize that even if we don’t particularly like it. Students need answers as problems arise – which includes evenings, weekends, and vacations. During most days on campus, I often leave my office to seek out students. I go where they hang out – the student center, the cafeteria, the library, the gym, and the Gazebo. I want to engage them, encourage them, and make certain that I’m available to help them. If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain.
7. We never underestimate the power of silence. Early in my teaching career, I audited a class from Religion Professor Emeritus Mattie Hart, who is a master at using the Socratic method. She once told me that dead air is not a sin. It may make for occasional awkward moments, but you can almost hear the cogs within their minds slowly tumbling. When the conversation begins anew, there is usually some fresh insight and perspective. Silence, I have learned, is not the enemy.
8. Regardless of the title of our classes, we are teaching students to think critically and to communicate effectively through writing and speaking. I use the IRAC method in the law classes which I teach. Students learn to spot issues, identify rules of law which help resolve those issues, use the rules of law to make arguments and counter-arguments, and reach a conclusion. But I am not purposefully teaching my students ”The Law” as many laypeople assume. Students need to learn how to think analytically and how to express themselves effectively. Law is simply the tool by which I attempt to accomplish this goal.
9. We understand that we are role models. Noted philosopher Charles Barkley once said that only parents should be role models. But experience has taught me that teachers fill this function as well. I have observed that if you ask ten people to name five individuals who have impacted their lives, most will list a former teacher in that group. We attempt to teach outside the classroom as well as inside it. We know that what we do often speaks much louder than what we say. We take seriously our role as role models.
So there you have it - two teachers and a conversation. Fortunately, I believe, for the students at Flagler College Professor Voguit and I are not unique.