This article first appeared in the December 2011 issue of The Teaching Professor.
I can’t remember when it happened; I just know that it did. I changed vocations in 2003, becoming a full-time academic after being president of a heat treating company in Ohio. I had long dreamed of being a college professor and imagined I’d be joining a collegial community where faculty would help each other improve as teachers. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I discovered that professors are just too busy teaching to help one another become better teachers. So I turned to the literature. I’ve read a treasure trove of articles, books, and websites that deal with “teaching tips” and “faculty development.” Some encouraged me; others left me feeling as though I were a mechanic trying to find the right tools to fix my car. And there were so many things to remember! What do I do to encourage discussion in my classroom? How do I get my students to do their assigned readings? Why doesn’t group work ever seem to be profitable to the students? The more I read, the more questions I had. I had almost resigned myself to a numbing journey that would only get more tedious and strained as the semesters rolled by. But then something happened.
I think it began when I started requiring each of my students to meet with me every semester for a brief one-on-one meeting. My goal in spending time with students individually was to encourage them and to learn more about how each of them approached learning. I never thought this would lead to much of anything else. But it did.
As I met with my students (some more than once), I began to love each one of them with something akin to agape love. The Greek word agape is often translated as “love” in the New Testament. The essence of agape love is self-sacrifice. Agape does not refer to romantic or sexual love. Nor is it equated with close friendship or brotherly love (the Greek word philia does that). This love for each student started affecting my attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and, in particular, the “sacrifices” I make on behalf of students.
For example, my attitude has changed toward students not performing well in my class. I used to think poorly of them and be irritated by their neglect of learning. Now I want to understand why they are not doing well. What can I do to help? Before this, I focused primarily on the “good” students—the ones who met my standards of performance. I taught for them and rather ignored the rest.
My attitude about being in class has also changed—I look forward to being there. I am actually disappointed when a student is absent. I wonder if my students don’t sense this change and feel more motivated to attend class, because attendance in my classes is at an all-time high. I work hard to make each class as enjoyable as it can be. Yes, we have work to do and we do the work. But each student is counting on me to make the learning journey as pleasant as possible. Believe it or not, even my attitude toward grading has improved. I often tell my students, “I teach for free; they pay me to grade.” But now I see each paper, each assignment, each project as an opportunity to personally help a student improve. I now approach those stacks of papers with more consideration for the individual student than I’ve ever felt before.
This agape love for each student has diminished some of the biases I used to bring to class with me. Now I work to accept each student right where he or she is at the moment. And those moments change during the semester. Sometimes I think I’m at my best when a student is at his worst. To come alongside that student, to listen, to encourage, to challenge—all with the overarching motivation of loving that student—what a blessing to be present and to see the possibility of teaching during those times.
So here I am in another semester planning for tomorrow’s classes as well as for those in the next semester. There’s always so much to do. I’m still reading the literature on teaching and learning. But now I see this and all other teaching tasks as a means to a larger and more important end. It’s funny though; I’m enjoying these tasks more now that I’ve stopped teaching and started loving.
Keith Starcher, PhD, is a professor of business at Indiana Wesleyan University.