I’ve been teaching statistics, computer science and mathematics at the University of Dallas for 16 years. It hasn’t always been easy, but the people — my colleagues and my students — are some of the best I’ve ever known. I’ve learned a lot from them over the years. So what are those things that have helped me become a better teacher, to become more like one of those “interesting” and “accessible” professors that UD is known for? I couldn’t write this thinking of it as a “to do” manual for other professors, and I certainly think that I have more progress to be made. So take the following list as notes to my past self, things that I wish I knew when I first started teaching at UD.
1. Show your love for what you do
I had to face this fact a long time ago: Most students aren’t exactly excited as about statistics as I am. However, I have discovered that the best learning takes place when I am excited and enthusiastic. I might get “geeked out” about a new data source that I’ve discovered or worked up about the statistical analysis behind a recently published study, and that enthusiasm rubs off and sometimes even sticks. There are several former students who have gone into statistics who have let me know that it was my excitement that made them excited. And even those who are happy to be done with statistics when my class ends tell me they have fond memories.
2. Bring your students into your academic life
I know that teaching by example is the way to full development of my students, but the four years of college speed by quickly. Classroom time and those occasional social gatherings that mix faculty and students are wonderful, but they are exceedingly brief. Rather, it is the time of working with students over some larger project that seems to have been the most fruitful for them and for me. It’s a school of virtue — for everyone involved! — to put together a big project: a symposium, a research project, a consulting job or even preparing for life after college.
3. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
I love to experiment on new ways of explaining things to my students, but it hasn’t always been that way. Fear of failure kept me from taking the risks that would allow me to learn what works and what does not in the classroom. I think that there is even some pedagogical value in fouling up; it allows the student to see what can go wrong and how I recover.
I should pray for my students, pray for my teaching, pray for my institution, its leaders, benefactors, alumni, etc. I should spend time meditating on Jesus’ teaching mission. Yes, he didn’t have much to say about statistical analysis or the proper use of “p-values,” but he was leading the world to the truth, and in my own small way, I am leading my students to the truth, too.
5. Always be ready to learn
I really like the Spanish phrase “Aprendiz de todo, maestro de nada” — “Apprentice of everything, master of nothing.” I think it reflects the fact that there is something more that can be done even in those areas that I think I’ve mastered. If I keep my ears and eyes open, how much can be learned from my colleagues and my students? And, as a wise professor once told me, “to be interesting, you have to be interested.”
6. Be demanding but kind
I have to work at making sure I’m neither too soft nor too hard on my students — the classic balance of justice and mercy. My students will rise to the demands I make on them, doing more than they thought they could — more than I thought they could! — but there needs to be room for mistakes and circumstances beyond their control. And yes, sometimes the most merciful thing to do is to give that “F,” but I find it is not too often.
7. Think of the end
My favorite parenting advice comes from the author Jim Stenson, who says good parenting springs from keeping in mind the end to which you aspire — that you are raising adults, not children. The same can be said about my students. While they are students now, soon they will be professionals and on their own. Am I working to prepare them for the rest of their lives? And really, as a Christian professor, am I preparing them for the life to come? Keeping that in mind often helps me decide on what’s important and what can be left to the side.
8. Be humble
The end result of all my work is really not for me to decide. I need to do the work of teaching and mentoring to my best ability and let God do the rest. Furthermore, teaching is about building a relationship, and pride and conceit is poison in relationships. I need to ultimately pray for humility and peace of heart. Taking the last line of the beautiful prayer “Litany of Humility” by Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, I need to pray daily “that my student may become holier than I, provided that I become as holy as I should; Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.”
David Andrews, who holds a Ph.D. in statistics, is an associate professor of mathematics at the University of Dallas.
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