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Shira Lurie is a PhD candidate in Early American History at the University of Virginia. Her research focuses on popular political conflicts over the American Revolution’s legacy in the early republic. You can follow her on Twitter and on her blog.




I had lofty expectations when I began teaching. My imagined classroom looked a lot like the one in Dead Poet’s Society: I envisioned my students standing on desks, calling me “O Captain, my Captain,” and being inspired to live a good life (nothing bad happens at the end of that movie, right?). But the reality soon came crashing down on me. With sixty students and a mountain of content to cover in only an hour of class time each week, I quickly realized that there would be little to no opportunity for life-affirming lessons and inspirational speeches.


I think we all, at some point in our teaching careers, confront this gap between our expectations and reality. The weekly grind of teaching (and especially grading) can be exhausting and disappointing, especially when compared to our initial high hopes. But as my first semester of teaching got underway, I decided to strike a balance somewhere in between my unrealistic expectations and the hard reality I had discovered. That is, I still sought to inspire my students, but decided to set more achievable goals for doing so. Here are some tips:


1. Identify the key themes of the course.


No student will ever remember everything you teach them, so it’s important to think about some big ideas you want them to take away from the course. Identify and explore these themes often. Every few weeks, it can be useful to end class by asking how the content discussed that day relates to the key themes of the course. Encourage students to discuss them in their papers and exams. Mid-semester evaluations can also be a great way to check-in with your students about how well they are understanding the key themes.


2. Identify the key skills of the course.


Helping your students improve important skills, like writing and critical thinking, can be especially rewarding as these skills translate to many different professions. Your students may not pursue careers in your field, but you can still have an impact on them and their futures. For this reason, I try to blend content and skill development in my classroom as much as possible. One activity I like, for example, is to break the students into groups and give them each a short primary source. I have each group write a paragraph that uses their source to make an argument. The groups email me their paragraphs so I can put them up on the screen for the class. We then go through each paragraph together, discussing the content and evaluating the writing.


3. Reward the effort and initiative of individual students.


You won’t get to be a mentor to every student, but there may be some with whom you develop a strong connection. I think the most equitable way to determine the students who receive more of your attention is to match their individual effort levels. By coming to office hours, arranging meetings, discussing things after class, and emailing, some students will demonstrate more engagement and initiative, and they should be rewarded for it. In this way, you can feel good about providing individual attention without fears that you’re being inequitable.


4. Pick your battles.


There’s an old teaching maxim: “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” Some students may confront you with problems that are too big for you to solve, like family or relationship issues. It can be tempting to try and play the hero, but we risk making things worse if we try to act beyond our expertise. Instead, try to point the student to resources on campus that can provide the appropriate support. But you can still help by thinking through the small ways that you can be of assistance. Perhaps the student needs an extension on an upcoming deadline, or maybe she needs a review of some of the week's content because she was distracted in class. In this way, you can still assist a struggling student while remaining firmly within your job description.


5. Don’t get discouraged!


Sometimes there are just those students who got away. The ones who you feel you’ve made no progress with by the end of the term. It’s okay to regret those missed opportunities when they happen, but don’t let them overshadow your accomplishments! Think back to the students who you did see improve and let yourself feel good about that. You can’t win them all - just knowing that you tried to win them all is enough.


How do you manage expectations vs. reality in your classroom? Let us know in the comments!


[Image provided by Flickr user Mr. Jincks and used under a Creative Commons license]

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