Reflections on Teaching

Martha L. Olney
 October 1997

As the 1997 recipient of the Jonathan Hughes Prize for Excellence in Teaching, awarded annually by the Economic History Association, I have been asked to pen this essay on teaching. I am honored to do so. And humbled. Shouldn't reflections on teaching be written by the senior members of our profession, those who have honed their skills over decades of practice? In my less-guarded moments, I can admit that at age 40 I have nearly 20 years of teaching experience under my belt. Two decades of practice ought to produce a fairly well-honed skill. But I hope that I have another 20 or 30 years of experience yet to gain, and that I will learn and grow as a teacher over those next few decades. So consider these comments "reflections along the way" rather than "reflections on a completed journey."

 First some background. I have taught at U. C. Berkeley (Cal) both as a graduate T. A. and now as a professor, at College of San Mateo (CSM, a California junior college), and at University of Massachusetts, Amherst (UMass). My first teaching job was as a T. A. for Principles of Economics in Fall 1979 at Cal. At CSM I taught principles courses to 30-student classes, a mix of high school whiz kids, struggling twenty-somethings, returning students, housewives, recent military retirees, and retired folk. At UMass, I taught principles, intermediate macro, US economic history, math (!), and graduate courses in macro and economic history. Principles classes enrolled about 300 students. Twenty to 30 students were enrolled in the other classes. Many undergraduates at UMass were first-generation college students, the children of blue-collar and working class Massachusetts families. Most of the in-state students emerged from a culture that (wrongly!) said only the poor or the stupid go to UMass. Here at Cal, I teach mostly large lecture courses to undergraduates: principles (700 students), intermediate macro (400), money and banking (250), and US economic history (250-400). I have also taught undergraduate seminars in US economic history and senior thesis writing, plus the teaching development seminar for the department's graduate teaching assistants.

 Students tell me two things that they like about my teaching: my organizational skills and the life lessons I teach. The first are easy to acquire. More on organization below. The second -- life lessons -- happen through some mysterious process that I'm not sure I understand. I suspect my teaching philosophy is the key.

 It is difficult for me to talk about my teaching philosophy without talking about my personal theology. Not that I bring my faith explicitly into the classroom. Just that I think my faith informs who I am and how I behave. If you are reading this essay for "tips on how to be an award-winning teacher," please be clear: I am not saying that a prerequisite is being a person of faith. But in these "reflections along the way," faith is part of what makes Marty tick as a teacher.

 I believe we are all loved children of God. I believe that there are no privileges or handicaps that come with birth into one family or one gender or one race or one sexual orientation. I believe the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- is a useful guide for behavior. I believe that we are all striving to become the people our Creator created us to be.

 All of which boils down to one word: respect. In my teaching, respect is my number one rule. I respect the students. Not because they are bright or rich or well-dressed or white or male or Asian or gay or Muslim or an economics major or the star quarterback or daughter of the President. I respect them because "students are people, too," people deserve respect, and because I treat them as I would want to be treated.

 I recognize the many demands on their time, and don't change exam times or deadlines at the last minute. I give a complete course outline in the syllabus so they can plan their semester. I realize they truly may have commitments barring them from coming to my office hours, and so I readily schedule appointments for mutually convenient times.

 I assume their goal is to learn the material. When they come to me with graded exams, I respect their desire to learn what they did wrong so that they might improve the next time. I recognize that I am sometimes unclear, so when they ask for a second explanation I provide one without offense.

 I want them to gain confidence in their intellectual abilities. At UMass, this was my over-arching goal. Too many students at UMass assumed their instincts were wrong. They did not trust their ability to reason, to think. I praised them when their logic served them well, and helped them see the flaws in their thinking when they got off-track. I cheered (literally!) when they got something right after struggling with it. I believe that acquiring an ability to think through problems -- be they economic or political or social or personal problems -- is critical to gaining self-confidence, and so I explicitly teach a method for criticizing arguments.

 And I respect who they are. There is more to life than economics. "What should I major in? My parents want me to major in business." Follow your heart. Figure out what you love, what makes you groove, what turns you on, and major in that. Your parents will eventually come around. If you love business, then go for it. But if your love is art history, if your passion is politics, if you can't get enough of microbiology, follow your heart. Life is too short to not do what you love.

 Somehow in all of this, I teach them life lessons. One student said what he really admired was how I "carried" myself. I suppose it's more than having grown up next door to an Army colonel who threatened to tie a broomstick to my back if I didn't stand up straight! After my father died in April 1995, a number of students commented that my return to the classroom one week later taught them about fulfilling obligations even when life interferes. Did they know I went back to my office after class and sobbed? I don't know. I think they knew I was struggling through a rough time, but that "through" was the key word. I have often had conservative Republican students seek me out as their mentor, knowing full well that I am certifiably liberal. Why? I think because I treat the students with respect. Together we think through the perplexing political and social problems of the day, we disagree, we figure out why, and we don't feel a need to belittle each other because of our disagreement.

 Surprisingly, my teaching ratings following my brother's death in May 1996 were at their all-time high. Fall 1996 was hell personally. Why did the students respond so positively? I think I was more vulnerable, more human. My brother dropped dead at 50. One of the several things that killed him was the inability to find a permanent job after having been downsized out of his company four years earlier. To me, unemployment has always been about real people. But following Ken's death, my discussion of the problem of unemployment took on a whole new level of poignant reality. Students from previous classes were shocked when they heard of Ken's death: he had been "their example" of structural unemployment and the effect of corporate downsizing. This is real life we're dealing with when we teach economics. Students respond.

 Bringing more vulnerability to my teaching does not mean eliminating all professional boundaries. The relationship between me and my students is about teaching. I believe they need not know much about my personal life in order for me to be an effective teacher. I use examples drawn from my life: my brother's unemployment, my mother's Social Security, my dad's business, my immigrant grandmother. But the various demands on my time, my emotional struggles, my home life -- I see those as inappropriate to share with the students. My confidence in myself and in my teaching must come from internal sources. I cannot and should not depend upon my students for ego gratification. All the mutual respect in the world doesn't eliminate the power relationship between us. I see it as my responsibility to respect my students by maintaining proper professional boundaries.

 If you've read through this entire essay searching for specific tips for your teaching, this may be the paragraph for you. Think about the teachers you have had. See in your mind's eye the best of the best. What made him or her the best? For me, it is Bill Medigovich, one of my high school math teachers. Medigovich was best because he cared about me as a person, because he brought extraordinary enthusiasm to every math topic, and because he was very organized and prepared. Do you remember any of the material you learned from that person? I bet the answer is "no, not really." The best teachers aren't those who fill our minds with facts we never forget. The best teachers are those who inspire us to be the people we were created to be. Bill Medigovich taught me to believe in myself. He taught me to find joy in learning and in math. He made more difference in my life than dozens of other teachers combined. I have modeled my teaching after the best teacher I know.

 Organization takes time but pays off. I plan out the entire semester. The syllabus tells what material I will cover each day. I know when the exams will be and so do the students. Each lecture is organized and easy to follow. I arrive 10 minutes before class is due to begin. An outline goes on the board and into their notes. I learn a few names while I'm waiting for class to start. I relearn the same names the next day. They laugh at my poor memory, but clearly appreciate my efforts. I cajole them into arriving on time and quieting down. Each lecture covers about 12 pages of paper. Having written the lecture out in the previous 24-48 hours, I barely refer to my notes but present a clear lecture. I make lots of eye contact. I smile a lot. I exude enormous levels of energy. I jump and move and use my hands and slide and point and encourage participation. They smile and snooze and take copious notes and somehow learn lessons of life in the process. I say "bless you" when they sneeze. I have fun. I teach the students, not the material.

 We each bring our own personalities and life experiences to our teaching. We develop skills. We talk with each other about our teaching, gain insight, solicit feedback. We are engaged in an activity that has tremendous social value and which entails tremendous responsibility. We are helping to create the future. Respect ourselves, respect our students, respect each other. And have fun. There is unbridled joy in the mystery that is teaching.


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Page edited 10/12/98
by Martha Olney