I had an interesting conversation a few years ago after mid-term exams, someone came up to me and (quite crossly) demanded that they pass the course they were taking because, “I am paying tuition and your salary, why should you fail me?” In another instance, a much more subdued conversation between myself and a student came as we had a somber discussion about what a second failure in a course would mean. The parting comment was, “I did everything I could, please don’t fail me.”
In these two diametrically opposed reactions to very similar circumstances, I reflect on what is perhaps the partition wall between instructor and student, the teacher and pupil. It is this: I know what they need to know, but the students across this wall often fail to see what they really need to understand.
My job as the best instructor I can be is, in my humble opinion, to explain to the best of my ability the knowledge and understanding that I have gained about the material that has enabled me to become successful at what I do. It is to foster growth and enthusiasm about the material, that perhaps they too can glimpse the same beauty that drew me into the field, the amazing wonders of the world that is theirs to explore when they understand it.
I would like to structure courses such that almost everything is geared towards a project. I have seen these types of courses both succeed with great effect, or flounder as material is not covered fast enough and things get rushed. I believe in setting expectations high and pushing very hard; people have never failed to surprise me by under-performing when I show that I believe in them, and that I am willing to give them every measure of support that I can give. Project courses with high expectations and careful guidance are doomed to succeed (I say this as it is sometimes at the expense of other classes).
As an instructor, I care very deeply about how people are understanding the material. I once had a professor during my undergraduate degree in physics, who took me aside after class one day and said, “Mario, you are not doing as well as you should. I need you to do the assignments one week earlier than everyone else and come to my office if you have questions.” It was so kind of him and was exactly the impetus I needed at the time. Little did I know how busy professors were, little did I know how much of his research time and energies I used up. But it was precisely what I needed. I want to be someone approachable and willing to help the individual, even if it is inconvenient. Although I work with robotics, life is about the people around us.