Fifth in a series on teaching excellence
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Ernest Henley
One of the most powerful aspects of being a university faculty member is having the freedom to do what you think best in the interest of students in order to carry out the mission of a university.
A great day for any teacher occurs when a student believes Henley’s meaning because of the influence the teacher has exerted. Student and teacher working in unison achieve this breakthrough; working together “to make the world a better place” I was once told.
This is where the magic in teaching lives. It is not about programs.
You’ll not find a more strident advocate for recognizing teaching excellence than me. Universities have been known to stop rewarding excellence in teaching when enrollment is down or funding is off. The perfectly wrong response. In many cases programs rewarding teaching excellence will neither create nor encourage it. The best teachers teach in spite of everything because they actually believe Henley. It is intrinsic.
Believing Henley means faculty members sense in their own work something akin to what ministers, doctors, and true public servants refer to as a calling.
The challenge is that the great teacher must dwell in an ecosystem of teamwork, accrediting standards, promotion and tenure, peer groups, state regulations, rules, contracts, and other forces inside and outside the academy that try to exert influence on the interactions that occur in the classroom. All those forces have a smoothing effect on excellence. Excellence should be a bit rough around the edges, personalized, as it never occurs twice in the same way.
And the equation for teaching excellence makes the Riemann Hypothesis look like Ned in the first reader.
If programs could create excellence, if workshops were successful, if centers for teaching excellence would make it happen, if higher ACT or SAT scores would address the issue, our quest would be simple. Recognizing the limits of such actions and measures does not diminish their importance.
However, teaching excellence is a narrow street with teacher and students going in both directions simultaneously. Everything trivial falls to the wayside when excellence in teaching and excellence in learning travel the same thoroughfare.
Nelson Mandela recited Invictus regularly to fellow inmates. And, while not intending to compare excellent teaching to imprisonment or its life-changing impact, it is impossible not to relate the two: from St. Paul to Mandela prison has, on occasion, had the impact of freeing a person to think for him- or herself.
Is that not the purpose of all teaching?
Reverend King’s teaching, embodied in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, may be one of the most eloquent calls for a practically applied vision of the principles of moral and natural law when he quotes Aquinas, “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.”
Is this too heady for calculus or history students at a state university?
When teaching is ignited by human passion, it empowers people to change the way they think, to have a positive impact on those around them, and to see how something simple can be profound in its application. That is the teaching we should hold up and say, “This is our benchmark”.
No rule-driven recipes for doing an adequate job will ever fan the flame of passion needed for students to see themselves the way Henley saw himself after his foot and a portion of leg were amputated… “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
I have never seen someone capture what true teaching excellence is so eloquently. As a business/entrepreneurship professor, I refuse to give tightly bounded assignments because that is how the real world works. I am completely accessible to my students at almost any time, day or evening, weekday or weekend, and they do real world projects for non-profits. My biggest challenge is overcoming all the professors who teach straight from the textbook slides and give memorize and regurgitate tests. I also think all of the standardized testing they have in high school metaphorically beats the ability to think outside the box out of them and it is our job to help them get it back.
Quite honestly Dr. Wendler, I was only here one year while you were chancellor so I really don’t understand what happened but I think that whole plagiarism thing was ridiculous and I think you are completely innocent and someone had it in for you and used that to take you down. I received my PhD at age 38 and was a business executive before that so my opinion of university politics are that they are so big because the issues are so small and ridiculous. I’ve run billion plus dollar budgets, made heartbreaking decisions to lay off good people because of reasons they had no control over, and worked on a top secret (now de-classified) nuclear military project. Those are REAL issues. However, after reading your columns, I think it is a blessing to the students that you are back in the classroom. To me, you hit the mark on what the single most important issue is in universities; how can we give our students the best education possible and train them to think and thrive after they leave us.
I think you have captured the motivation and core of teaching excellence very well. The greatest reward of teaching does not come from a workshop or an award. The true reward comes during that moment when you know that you have mentally connected with a student-and they have learned.