You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

A multi-ethnic group of college-aged students sit in a row in a lecture hall and listening to and apparently enjoying their professor whose back is turned to the camera.

FatCamera/Istock/Getty Images Plus

Years ago, my good friend Julius Scott, a great scholar, even better teacher, the smartest person I’ve ever known, an inspiration to those who believe that good work will eventually be rewarded, and a man I loved with all my heart, told me a story he’d been told by Lawrence Goodwyn, one of his teaching mentors.

I hope I get this right, though sadly, I can’t confirm it with either of them. The details are irrelevant, though they wouldn’t be to excellent historians like Julius and Larry.

Larry was set to teach a course at Duke University that was overenrolled. A seminar for 20 people had 40 students who wanted in. Instead of simply turning them away, Larry offered to break the class into two sections. Randomly assigned, the students split up.

In each section, Larry taught exactly the same way. Same reading list, same questions, same assignments, same Larry.

One of the sections was awesome. Everyone had a great time and loved it.

The other, not at all.

And they all agreed on those assessments. No one could figure out what made each section feel so different.

The lesson, Larry told Julius, who relayed the story to me at the beginning of my teaching career—a story that has stuck with me ever since—is this:

When a class goes well, you can’t take too much credit.

And when a class goes badly, you can’t take too much blame.

We know how just a few people can turn a room sour. (At times, I suspect I may have been that stinking raw onion.)

A benefit of aging and experience is pattern recognition. Even as it’s impossible to anticipate the multiplicity of ways things can go pear-shaped, we eventually learn tricks to set ourselves—and our students—up for success. Yet these days, it’s a bit more challenging than it used to be. (Yes, I know, I sound like what we who receive the AARP magazine refer to as a broken record, a metaphor that has outlived its usefulness—see? Old!)

When I first started teaching 20 years ago, most of my colleagues my age or younger had already been at it for decades. They weren’t all that interested in talking about teaching techniques and tricks and were apt to complain about students, which brought me some amount of comfort: it’s not just me! If I were to describe a situation I was struggling with, they would say, “Yep. Been there.” Misery loves confirmation bias.

We know that many anonymous reviews are written by consumers who are pissed off. Few people take the time to stop and appreciate when things go smoothly. I mean, sure, some still cheer when the airplane touches down, but that tends to happen only after an unusually bumpy ride. How many people applaud the member of the waitstaff who brings a meal quickly or the race director who puts on a marathon that goes off without a hitch?

But how wonderful to pause to kvell about excellent students or even those we just get to watch grow, to talk about how fortunate we are to be able to do these jobs, to recognize the extraordinary freedom we have and also the fact that few other professions offer the kind of job security that, once tenured, we enjoy. I try to embrace (and remember) the good academic times.

Still, when a class goes poorly, when students are demanding and needy pains in the butt—which, let’s face it, is sort of in their job description as college students—it can be hard to get out of bed.

A while ago, a friend told me about a chat she’d had with an older woman about what to do when her husband was driving her around the bend. What, my friend wanted to know, was the secret to a long-lasting relationship?

There are, of course, no secrets.

But the older woman did offer this thought. When her husband was being, um, difficult, she simply told herself to “love him more.”

It’s as familiar as the precept of pretty much every religion. But sometimes, in the press of taking out the garbage or finding a stray sock in the bed, it’s easy to forget what to do unto others and all. Sometimes you just want to scream “Will you please turn off the freaking lights.” But that’s not a great way to have a relationship.

At the beginning of every term, when I prepare myself to teach a bunch of students I’ve never met who are coming to class carrying a variety of baggage that seems well over the weight limit, I go for a run, think about my goals for the class, and repeat to myself this mantra: Love them more.

And, while this may at first seem counter to that directive, I also tell myself to care less.

That may need a bit of explanation.

I recently talked with a friend whose job is managing what sounds to me like an unmanageable group of people doing impossible jobs. As a leader, he had to deal with crises that would turn me in a puddle of weeping anxiety. But when I expressed sympathy for him and said I didn’t know how he did it, this kind man, whom I know to be nurturing and gentle, said simply, “It’s not bad. I just don’t care that much.”

He wanted to keep going, to explain.

He didn’t need to. As soon as he said it, I knew exactly what he meant.

He did not mean that he didn’t care about the people he managed. He did. And he didn’t mean that he didn’t care about the organization, or solving problems or getting the work done.

Instead, this strikes me as a mature perspective about keeping a smart distance between your job and your actual self. Understanding what is and is not in your control. Doing the best you can, while also not contorting yourself to try to fix things you can’t manage. You know, the path to serenity.

Another of my best teaching lessons came from my mentorship hero, Tim Gunn. On season 2 of Project Runway, Tim said to one of the designers (Andrae! Where’s Andrae? What happened to Andrae!”) who was clearly a favorite but kept getting in his own way, something to the effect of, “I can’t want this for you more than you want it.”

That is what I picture when I tell myself to care less.

It used to hurt my feelings when students didn’t do the work. I took it personally not only if a student missed class, but also if, when I was speaking, they weren’t all looking at me and paying attention.

I believed that if they weren’t learning and trying to get better as readers and writers, the failure was mine.

I still think that most of the time.

Then I remember the great classes I’ve taught and also those that didn’t go so well. I do the best I can, even if it’s not good enough.

And I tell myself to love them more and to care less.

Next Story

Written By

More from Career Advice