Throughout my journey in academia I have encountered numerous memorable teachers and have taken various impactful classes. As I reflect on those teachers and courses the most valued lessons that I can extract from them has a lot more to do with my personal growth than my professional. As a first generation college student my parents and I were unsure about the entire college process. To be quite honest I was scared, clueless and completely unsure of myself and my abilities. Attending Spelman changed that, not just because it allowed me a space to engage in higher learning, but also because it gave me room to grow as both a woman and a scholar. The professors I encountered at Spelman made me fall in love with psychology, academia and my own potential. Even now as a graduate I still reach out to those same professors for questions regarding my career, my life and my goals. Therefore within my own career in academia I hope to use my classrooms to not only teach psychology, but also to motivate and encourage students to do and be more than they previously believed they could.
My students are free writing; I have asked them to identify how this particular chapter (social psychology) has or can improve their life. Later as I am reading the responses I come across many thought provoking responses. One stands out more than the rest, it reads: ‘this chapter has taught me not to prejudge people; I did that a lot, more than I would like to admit, I’m working on that now.’
Reading those free responses made me realize just how much I wanted my students to make connections between the course and their own life. Psychology is one of the most applicable fields within academia and students taking courses should be able to establish links between the course and everyday life. To achieve this I introduce popular media, such as the Big Bang Theory and Mean Girls to show how psychology is used in mainstream culture. We apply concepts to recent elections or everyday encounters to explore psychology in real life action. If my students take away nothing else from the course content, I hope that they derive the elements of psychology that allow a deeper understanding of life. I want my students to understand how much the concepts we explore within the classroom can be utilize in the greater world outside of the university.
Paying it forward: Mentorship
I am sitting in my office when I notice a shadow followed by a gently knock on the door frame. I look to my open door expecting to see a colleague or a student looking for directions. To my surprise I see one of my students smiling broadly at me. Even though it is my office hours I did not anticipate having a visitor, undergraduates (especially freshman), do not make a habit of casually dropping by. I invite my student in and ask what has bought him in to see me. He replied “Miss Smith, I wrote out my goal list, identified my motivation and my steps for achievement and now I’m finally motivated to declare my major. I remember you saying you were willing to help us with that kind of stuff, so do you have any time to do that?”
Helping that student and others find their path is one of the most important goals I have, because it was down for me. I would be lying if I said I got here on my own or by coincidence. When I first started my undergraduate career, graduate school was not on my radar. I was the first in my family to receive a bachelor’s degree and therefore graduate school was uncharted territory. Hands on mentorship and sisterhood made me thrive and I want to be able to provide those same opportunities for other students who may not have without those mentors I encountered.
Learning isn’t always easy, and it shouldn’t be
“That test was hard Miss Smith. But it was fair. Also, did I mention I helped someone in need today?”
This comment was a drastic change from the response I received from my first test. Many of my students complained and called foul initially, but that too was a learning experience. I explained to my students that if I failed to challenge them then I fail to teach them. College is not easy and it shouldn’t be. It should be a site of maturation and it should force you to expand your abilities and make you better. Every day I challenge my students to critically think by engaging them in a range of activities and group exercises to make them think deeper about the class and their lives. We discuss real life issues, morality, bullying and relationships and apply them to our lives. We also consider why we do what we do and how to change ourselves and others. We do not stop with the answer “well scientist are still unsure about…” or give in at “well I really don’t know” or “that’s just what people do”. When we come to a topic like bystander effect we explore them as a class and in groups and think about times we have seen this phenomenon occur and our own parts in it. Students find the material more relatable when it applies to them and they internalize it as well. When the students talk about themselves in the course they also talk about the course in their lives. Thus, my students are using the concepts they learn in my class out in the world. I cannot ask for anything more.
Learning isn’t always collaborative, but it should be
The conversation is in full effect. We are talking about ourselves and our families, everyone’s two favorite topics. In the back of the room I see a hand shoot up. This hand has never been used in class; it belongs to the student whose name I took the longest to remember. She never speaks so when I call on her all my students turn back to get a glimpse of the girl with the name they have never heard spoken. She shares an anecdotal story about her family; we laugh, gasp and comment at the appropriate times. She smiles, that hand is active in subsequent classes.
My students are loud and opinionated. Hands are always raised; playful banter is constantly in full effect. I like it that way. People know each other and call each other by name and it is not my class, it is our class. The students and I feed off of each other and their input is essential to my success as a professor because I need to be aware of their needs. Thus, I check in with my students often. Each lecture utilizes some form of discussion time that allows students to work through some of the more problematic concepts. I am not a mind reader, so I invite anonymous written feedback in which students can tell me exactly what I am doing right and wrong. This allows the quieter students to also speak their minds and inform me of their needs.
Learning isn’t always safe, and it shouldn’t be
“Write down a stereotype about one of your out-groups. Do not be political correct, do not be safe, choose a group that you know little about. Be real.” My students hesitated, looked around, hesitated some more and then slowly started writing. “Now ball up those stereotypes and throw them around the room”. After two minutes of throwing. “Pick up the stereotype besides you, now read it aloud.”
My students were being safe. Way too safe. That is usually how it goes with lessons about stereotypes, racism and discrimination. Those issues are real, sensitive and uncomfortable to talk about, which is exactly why it is necessary to talk about them. Through the above activity students got real and discussed the issues they saw in their communities. We talked about how stereotypes develop and why they persist and students were able to connect to those experiences to the lesson. This activity allowed us to really tackle a very sensitive topic without exposing specific student in an engaging and real manner. Exposing students to their and their peer’s assumptions of others was a lesson, a lesson that will hopefully stick with the students after my class.
Within my short time teaching I have been able to identify some important aspects of myself as a professor. I truly value the mentoring component of teaching and believe that my impact can and should be felt outside of the classroom. Pushing students to become greater versions of his or her self is met with those same students pushing me to do the same. Because teaching and learning is paired with continuous room for growth, I am constantly revisiting and revising my teaching methods. No two students, classrooms, or semesters are the same and thus teaching is always an exciting learning experience. A learning experience I anticipate continuing for a very long time.