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Teaching... and learning

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

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I’ve been reflecting lately on an experience I had with a student during my first year as an assistant professor. Although it was my first semester teaching at UW-Madison, I’d had prior teaching experience, both during graduate school and during a brief stint as a high-school teacher, and I viewed teaching as one of my strengths. In fact, it was the one realm of academic life in which I felt reasonably competent (if not confident), which made the encounter I’m about to describe especially unsettling.

It was roughly 3 weeks into the semester, and one of the students in my MBA investments course asked to speak with me privately after class. Thinking little of it, I agreed. He made what I thought was small-talk as we rode up in the elevator, asking me a bit about my background, where I’d gone to school, etc. I mentioned, among other things, that I had earned a Ph.D. from Northwestern University the year prior.

When we arrived at my office, I was expecting the student to say that he was struggling with the material, or to explain that he was dealing with a personal issue that was interfering with his coursework, or to simply talk with me about possible career paths as students often did. Instead, he spoke words that are forever etched in my memory: “I don’t know if you have a Ph.D. in O.B. or marketing or what, but you aren’t qualified to teach this class.” (Just to be clear, O.B. means “organizational behavior,” and my Ph.D. is in finance, the subject I was teaching.) As the conversation—if you can call it that—continued, he repeatedly encouraged me to “do the right thing and step down.” I fumbled through some attempts to defend myself before eventually telling him that I needed to end the meeting. Before leaving my office, he informed me that he’d be circulating a petition to have me removed from the class.

I’m not sure how long I stood in my office alone before the magnitude of what had just transpired hit me. Once it did, the shock I had initially experienced quickly turned to fear. The only saving grace I could find was that I hadn’t cried during the meeting.

I had no idea what to do, but I figured I should at least give my department chair a heads up. I wasn’t sure that he’d still be in given that it was almost 6 p.m., but luckily, I found his door open. After asking if he had time to talk (he did), I summarized my encounter with the student in as relaxed a tone as I could muster. He listened quietly and then responded in a way that I never would have anticipated. He looked me in the eye and without hesitation said, “This has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with how you look.” I had just turned 29 and looked much younger... people often mistook me for an undergraduate student. He went on to share that his daughter, who was about my age, had experienced similar challenges because of her appearance. He expressed no concern whatsoever about my ability to teach the class, and simply mentioned that there were teaching-related resources available were I interested. Although I was still shaken (and would remain so for weeks, especially every Monday and Wednesday from 4 to 5:15 p.m.), I left his office feeling reassured and calmer than I could have imagined when I entered.

I’m sharing this story now for a couple of reasons. First, I am telling it in tribute to the department chair in the story, Howard Thompson, who passed away recently. Howard served on the faculty for 37 years before retiring almost 20 years ago. Although we were colleagues for only a few years, he left a lasting impression and had a meaningful impact on my career. I am lucky to have known him.

Equally important, I think that this story contains a number of valuable reminders worth highlighting:

  • You can say no. As I alluded to earlier, my MBA class ran from 4 to 5:15 that semester, meaning that it was at least 5:20 p.m. when this student asked to speak with me. It was not my office hours (i.e., the times indicated in the syllabus when I’m available to meet with students without an appointment). It wasn’t even normal business hours by that point. I don’t know what made me agree to speak with him immediately… A sincere desire to be responsive? The fear that I’d appear to lack dedication? Whatever the reasons, it never occurred to me to say no, and that was a mistake. I could have kindly told him that I wasn’t available and would be happy to talk at another time. I imagine that he would have delivered the same message later, but maybe not. Perhaps if he’d had more time to consider it, he would have chosen a less extreme approach. In any case, talking with him after having taught straight through since 1 p.m. and knowing that my baby was at home waiting to be fed was most certainly not ideal for me, and it would have been to my benefit to pause before agreeing to meet. (In addition—and this is probably obvious—I didn’t need to try to defend myself and likely should have ended the meeting immediately.)

  • It often has nothing to do with you. Students, colleagues, family members,… people in general will sometimes do things that make us feel “less than.” They’ll say things that cause us to question our own abilities, maybe unintentionally and maybe not. Please do your best to remember that this often has nothing to do with you. The vast majority of garbage people dump on us comes directly from their struggles and stuck points, not ours. By remembering that these negative encounters aren’t really about us, we widen our view and are able to take in a more complete picture of what is actually occurring, allowing us to take responsibility for our part—not more and not less.

  • It’s good to be human. This story reminded me of an email I get about once a month from Harvard Business Review with the subject line: “How to be human at work.” I have the same reaction every time I see it: Really? This is something we need to teach people? But my incredulity belies my actual experience, which instead suggests that yes, in fact, we’d all benefit from bringing a little more humanity into the workplace. It seems that far too many people hesitate to show empathy and vulnerability, and we all suffer as a result. Imagine how different my experience would have been if my department chair had leapt into “damage control” mode… strategizing around next steps, asking me what grounds the student may have had for his complaint, immediately contacting the dean. That would have fueled my anxiety and insecurity and certainly wouldn’t have made me a better professor. Instead, he listened and connected with me on a deeper, more human level. That this experience stands out in my mind over 20 years later is a testament to the power (and the relative infrequency) of these fully human interactions.

  • Believe in you(rself). Finally, by responding as he did, my department chair demonstrated faith in me and in my abilities. He could have insisted on sitting in on my class or sent me to teacher training, but he didn’t. Instead, he expressed total confidence. How often does that happen? How many people in our professional lives demonstrate that they truly believe in us? For most, that is a rare gift. So what if we not only make a point of seeking out people who make us feel capable and confident, but also strive to be that person for others? And while we’re at it, why not consider becoming that source of encouragement for ourselves? Rather than scolding ourselves for every minor slip, what if we accept that mistakes are part of being human and provide great opportunities to learn? And what if we actively bring to mind our strengths and how we’ve prepared before heading into the classroom or a stressful presentation? Whatever approach we choose, even small steps towards building ourselves up rather than tearing ourselves down can have immense benefits.

You may be wondering what became of the student’s petition. I honestly have no idea. All I know is that I remained the instructor, he stayed in the class, and I never heard another word about it (despite living in fear for weeks). Which leads me to my final takeaway: These things pass. Even things that loom so large that they seem to overshadow all positive aspects of our lives eventually lose their grip on us.

So hang in there. And remember that no matter what, you’ve got this.

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