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A man's hands are showing taking notes in a small spiral notebook on a wooden desk.

Being a continuous learner, especially in challenging subject areas, can help a professor to have more patience and empathy for students.

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Thinking outside the box as an educator is an approach that Joe Hoyle, who has taught accounting at the University of Richmond since 1979, strongly advises. In a chapter on this topic in his new, free ebook, Transformative Education: How Can You Become a Better College Teacher?, Hoyle argues that college professors should all strive for a little divergence.

“In college, I was always impressed by professors who seemed different, whose exercises and assignments were effective but also, at times, somewhat eccentric,” writes Hoyle, who has also been blogging about effective college teaching since 2010. “Whenever one of those unusual tasks worked well, the results told me that the teacher’s mind was bubbling with fascinating ideas. I immediately wanted to learn more from that person.”

One way Hoyle keeps his course assignment mix fresh—plus retains empathy for struggling students—is to be a continuous learner himself.

From “smart one” to struggling learner: Hoyle maintains a mission for confusion when choosing classes to enroll in. “I never want to forget the feeling of being totally confused by what a teacher is trying to explain,” he writes.

A professor gets used to being the one in the room who knows the most and holds absolute authority. By taking classes in subjects where he has “little or no talent,” Hoyle is reminded of how his students might feel.

Over the years, he’s been a student of Russian culture, ballroom dancing and jewelry making, among other topics.

And while he struggles at tai chi, those classes have been a regular part of his extracurricular mix. “The graceful flowing movements look simple until I attempt them with almost comic ineptitude,” he writes. “Nevertheless, my teacher exhibits infinite patience. Even after years with little progress, he never loses his temper or implies in any way that I am stupid or clumsy.” Instead, the teacher works with Hoyle repeatedly and doesn’t call him out in class for being a poor student.

Many years ago, on the first day of a two-day course on large-format photography, Hoyle learned about a process used since the 19th century for portraits. Students then shot two photographs, which the teacher developed that evening. The following day, the teacher shared that of the five students in the class, only four sets of photos had worked. The negatives for the fifth student were completely blank.

Hoyle panicked, knowing he had tried his best but hoping he wasn’t the one who had messed up. “I don’t want the class to know that I am the dumb one,” he thought.

And unfortunately, he was indeed student No. 5. The light had been unable to reach the negative because of a plate inserted backward on the camera. But Hoyle noticed this: “It was not a catastrophe. No one really cared. The other students barely noticed. We were merely taking a weekend class on photography.”

This article was adapted from lesson 15 of Joe Hoyle’s ebook Transformative Education: How Can You Become a Better College Teacher? The book can be downloaded for free from the University of Richmond Scholarship Repository.

Lessons learned: As a student, Hoyle realizes he does better when his teacher exhibits patience rather than anger or disappointment. The humbling experience of not doing well is something he remembers in his own teaching. Forgetting what it’s like to struggle in class limits any educator’s potential, Hoyle says.

The day after the photography class failure, Hoyle returned to his role as a tenured professor and found he had considerably more patience for students who weren’t getting the material and needed to hear an explanation a second time.

“If you are always the teacher, the wise and brilliant expert in the room, the perspective of the student can be lost,” Hoyle writes. “That is not good for you or your teaching. We all live busy lives. However, if you truly want to be a better teacher, make time to be a student so you can remember how it feels to be the dumb one.”

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