8 Rules for Teaching that Will Make You an Awesome Educator

Full disclosure: I don’t know everything there is to know about teaching. Shoot, I probably know far less than most of the people taking the time to read this post. So take my “rules for teaching” suggestions below with a large, crumbly grain of salt.

With that out of the way, I will say that I’ve had the good fortune to teach at three higher-ed institutions–two Research I institutions (Clemson University and Utah State University) and one liberal arts, teaching-focused institution (Westminster College). I’ve also participated in several pedagogy courses (if you’re not a teacher, “pedagogy” is a weird term–it means, essentially, the “theory of teaching”) and contributed to several teaching workshops and discussions. And I’ve taught literally scores of courses in different college departments from English to Communication to Biology and I’ve taught both undergraduate and graduate students covering dozens of different topics. I have taught in traditional classrooms, online classrooms, and in competency-based programs and I currently serve as a program chair of a master’s program in strategic communication.

None of that means, of course, that I’m an expert on teaching (I’ll leave that to the education scholars). And it certainly doesn’t mean that I’m any good at it. But I guess it means that I do, at least, have an opinion on it.

Over the years, I’ve tried many different things to enhance learning. Some have worked, others have failed miserably. But today, I want to share with you a few things that I have discovered over the years that have been the most powerful (or, that have seemed to have had the greatest effect) on learning. Here’s my top eight list of “rules” that make for good teaching (and, more importantly, effective learning):

Rule #1: Be a Mentor, Not a Teacher

Going back to may days as a young graduate student, we were taught to avoid like the plague a concept called the “banking method” of teaching. According to the metaphor behind this method, teachers are knowledge banks and they are meant to “pour” their knowledge into students, who are empty receptacles. The idea is that teachers know their stuff and students don’t, so teachers are hired to pour out their knowledge to the less-informed.

Strangely enough, many students expect this from teachers and it has become a common mindset in many of our educational systems. While it makes sense that many of us would view teachers as the experts and that students need to absorb knowledge from the experts (indeed there is a lot of truth behind that idea), problems arise when teachers begin feeling like they have all the answers and, in return, students begin feeling like they can only get the correct answers from their teachers. While there are certainly aspects of learning that require us to be “taught” by an expert, I propose a new model that allows students to become better learners: mentor them, don’t teach them.

In other words, as you develop a course or a program, you have the ability to set up the learning environment. If you give students the impression that all answers come from you, they tend to lose the ability to discover on their own. It’s often better, when developing courses and projects and assignments to present a problem and then let the students figure it out on their own. There’s a high probability of failure the first time around, but that’s okay. Mentor them through it and they’ll learn through their own discovery.

Rule #2: Let Go of Control

Related to Rule #1, Rule #2 suggests that teachers need to cede control of the learning to students. This took me many years to fully understand (and embrace), but students need to take the reigns on their own learning. This means that you can’t give in to their every request. You can’t tell them all the answers and you must resist even instructing them and providing them rubrics and instructions with fine-tuned details. Rather, embrace the idea that they’re going to struggle, but that they’re in charge while doing it. Allow them to set some of the parameters and allow them to discover correct from incorrect. The more control you give them, the more self-reliant (and self-directed) they become. You become less in charge and more there to support. It’s hard to get used to, but it significantly enhances learning.

Rule #3: Embrace Ambiguity

While it’s important that students understand what they are supposed to learn and what problems they are supposed to solve, they don’t always need step-by-step instructions. I was once taught, as I was new teacher, that the more descriptive, point-by-point instructions you give students, the better their work will be. But…this is only partly true. Oh, sure, they will produce exactly what I’m looking for when I do  that–their projects look almost identical to what I envisioned in my head. But therein lies the problem–they all look the same and students were given very little wiggle room to explore and discover.

While this will drive some students nuts (most have been raised on the idea that teachers will give them all the details, right up front and that they are to follow the rules), embrace the idea that some projects and parameters can be left ambiguous. It’s a strategic decision on your part to give them room to think critically and to act creatively. Open space for discovery and you may just be amazed with what they will come up with.

Rule #4: Let Students Design and Critique Their Own Projects and Parameters (Occasionally)

I wouldn’t do this with all students on all projects or even in all classes, but there is a time and a place to let students take full control. Consider your advanced courses or graduate students or courses where students have been well prepared to act on their own. Then, let them develop a final project where they even identify the assessment criteria. I’ve done this a few times and, while the reaction is always mixed as I announce it (some love the idea of taking full control while others fight me on it and tell me they’re paying me to be the expert and the one assessing the project), I’ve watched something amazing: at the end, pretty much all students (I’m willing to say 99%) say they appreciate and found some of the greatest value in doing a project that they determine on their own, from start to finish.

Allowing students to decide what their project will be and what they should be assessed on by themselves and their peers really pushes them to think critically about the content of the course and its direct application to their lives. And, without fail, students are much more critical of themselves and their peers’ projects than I ever am. They really push themselves to do the best work they can.

Rule #5: Work with Organizations in the Community

If there is ever any chance you can work with your course content with organizations in the community, do it. We hear the phrase “service learning” a lot, but there is true value to this. When students see what they are learning and how it relates to real people, their world changes. I’ve found that it’s actually not near as hard or intimidating for teachers to find willing organizations as some may think. So many people want to engage with colleges and with students–just find an organization you love and ask. They almost always jump at my feet and the rewards are always great.

Rule #6: Get Out of the Classroom

Nothing feels more static and more disconnected from life and learning than sitting behind a desk with a talking head at the front. Schedule places to go and people to see. Take students to see and participate in things they’ve never done. Field trips aren’t just good for elementary students–they’re good for all of us. Or…even just be on campus but outside of the classroom. One of my favorite activities with students is using sidewalk chalk on the campus walkways to draw and critique infographics.

Rule #7: Teach Stuff You Know Little about

Okay, this one sounds crazy, I know. I had a professor during my doctoral program that assigned us several books to read that he himself had never read. “One of the perks,” he told us, “of teaching graduate students, is that I can make you buy books that I’ve always wanted to read. And we can determine together if they’re any good.” While I thought the philosophy was weird at first, I sort of fell in love with the concept. Obviously, as a teacher, you have to have some foundational understanding of the material you’re covering. But you don’t have to be an absolute expert, either. Not knowing everything about a topic before teaching it forces me to race against the students. It also allows me to be current and well-rounded. And it creates great opportunities when a student gets ahead of you and you have a conversation with the class about what we’re all learning together. Students love teachers who are teachable. They seem to get excited by the very idea of learning when they realize that you’re learning right alongside them.

Rule #8: Travel…and Do Something Meaningful While You’re There

I realize this isn’t always a feasible options for all teachers–some are at institutions that don’t have financial support for traveling. Some teachers don’t have the physical or mental ability to travel. But if there is any way you can get a group of students to go somewhere out of their (and your) normal perspective, do it. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be able to take students all over the world–we’ve been to Peru, South Africa, Cambodia, and, soon, we’ll be going to Budapest and Krakow. These have been learning experiences that many of my students have admitted they wouldn’t trade for anything. But just traveling to these places isn’t what has been meaningful. It’s been the projects we’ve been engaged in.

While in Peru, my students created an integrated marketing plan and built a website for a nonprofit. While in South Africa, my students worked to create an anti-stigma campaign for teenagers diagnosed with HIV. And in Cambodia, my students storyboarded, planned, filmed, and edited eight different films that required them to visit with people in remote jungle villages.

Admittedly, these kinds of experiences aren’t easy (or cheap) to pull off. My recommendation to anyone who likes this idea is to tie a tuition cost to the trip, making it included in the program. In the program I teach in, it’s a graduate program and we just cover the trip from the students’ tuition. This way, they feel like it’s already paid for and almost all want to come and participate.