It may seem a small and insignificant thing, but, with smaller classes, I always make a point of learning my students’ names early in the semester. Doing so starts to show them that I am interested in them as individuals. Knowing one’s teacher has such an attitude improves a student’s educational experience, as most people tend to flourish under the light of personal care and attention. Moreover, excellent pedagogy requires something other than a standardized approach. Connecting with students is the best way to get them to connect to the material we are teaching. Obviously, students come into our classes with varying goals, abilities and interests. One must tailor one’s delivery and feedback to meet students’ particular needs and thereby bring out their personal best. As I mature as an instructor, moreover, I have sought to expand my role in helping my students make the most of their time at university by realizing that I can do more for them than pass on course material and assess their assignments.
If new instructors are at all like I was, then many are more concerned to demonstrate that they know enough to stand in front of a classroom, than they are to learn about students’ backgrounds and abilities. Time and experience however has served to shift my focus from myself and onto my students and their particularities. In keeping with this shift, I have devised systems to track feedback on past assignments to which I can refer while grading current work. This allows me to identify obstacles unique to certain students, give them challenges commensurate to their abilities, and recognize when they have made progress in these areas. I also routinely set up one-to-one sessions with my students to learn about their background and goals so that together we can find creative ways to connect essay topics to issues that matter to them. When a writer takes a personal interest in her topic the work becomes less onerous and she is more inclined to focus on crafting an argument she cares about than merely producing the sort of rote 3-point essay students seem to have been trained to write in high school.
As much as good student/teacher relationships facilitate academic success, however, so do interrelations between peers. In interacting with one another, students become more aware of varying points of view and stand to benefit from one another’s knowledge. Hence, I devise class activities that are interactive while also encouraging students to take small social risks such as participating in formal debates, role-playing, or otherwise presenting the results of brainstorming sessions. Due to the attendant air of excitement such activities evoke, it is not unusual to see a class erupt into laughter at least once, say, while bringing the cast of Hippolytus onto the Jerry Springer show, writing online dating profiles for Odysseus, or perhaps while setting up counselling sessions in which Plutarch advises Roman couples. Moreover, when students participate in such activities I see them combing through their texts and animatedly discussing course material, called upon as they are to approach various works in a novel and interesting ways. I have come to understand, moreover, that friendships fostered while interacting in my classes have persisted beyond the end of term for many of my students, providing them with an important basis of support through the course of their university careers. As focused as good educators are upon presenting course content well, many may overlook other small and equally essential pieces of a satisfying and successful university experience. Cultivating a sense of belonging inside the classroom and a sense of relatedness that extends beyond its confines both enriches our students and enhances that scholarly knowledge we impart to them.