Great expectations

My students have expectations of me that I display like banners.

This semester, on the first day of classes, I asked them, “What do you expect of me?” I had them all get out a sheet of paper and write those expectations down.

We had already talked about their expectations for the class. As it happens, I’m teaching six classes at the moment—a double-overload—and each one is different. That means six different sets of expectations. Each class focuses on writing skills, and each class contains a strong media ethics component, but each class offers unique things, as well: radio, internet, multimedia, rhetoric, speechwriting, public relations, events management, literary journalism.

Students can expect to get a lot of different things out of all those different classes.

But it’s important to know, too, what they expect of me. “Tell me what you expect of me, as a professor, as a person, as a communications professional—however you approach it,” I told them.

I invited them to keep their answers anonymous if it would help them be more honest. Most of the students put their names on the papers anyway. No shame in expecting something from your professor, after all.

When the students finished, I collected the papers and read them aloud:

“A class conducted in a fun, comfortable, and fair manner,” one student wrote.

“I expect you to allow my thoughts to be heard, and my creativity to come alive,” wrote another. “I expect to learn from you as much as I can and you can offer.”

“I expect you to be as available & open-minded as you’ve been all other semesters,” wrote another.

I read these aloud, class by class, as a way to keep myself accountable to my students. By publicly reading their expectations of me, the students and I can all be sure we’re on the same page—and they can hold me accountable to those expectations.

Do I feel the need to kowtow to their every whim? Of course not. Do I feel the need to adopt the “customer’s always right” mentality of a retail business? Nope. Do I feel the need to please all the students all the time? Hardly.

But I do feel the need to treat students with respect and fairness, and I do feel the need to challenge and stimulate them, and I do feel the need to have a really good time while doing it. I know the vast majority of my colleagues across the university feel the same way with their own classes.

The most common source of tension between teachers and their students, though, arises from people not living up to expectations. In fact, that’s true of any relationship. When those expectations are poorly articulated or misunderstood or assumed, that makes everything even worse.

So this semester, I wanted to put it all out there, up front. I clearly articulated my expectations for my students in my syllabi, and I wanted them to clearly articulate their expectations of me.

I continued to read aloud from the slips of paper—some ninety slips in all between the six classes.

“I expect this class to be well taught because you have never failed before,” wrote one student. “You’ve always treated me as an adult in your classes and I expect that to continue as well.”

I use the slips of paper as triggers for talking points. That allows me to explain things about the class and about myself so that we, as a learning community, can flesh out those expectations.

“I expect you to provide some advice or direction when I’m struggling with a story,” a student wrote.

“I expect a helping hand if/when I don’t know what to write about,” wrote another.

Many of the students recognize their own role in the learning process when they articulate their expectations of me. For instance, one said, “What I expect from you as a professor is to be engaging, tough but fair, and [you’ll encourage] us to become better students overall.”

After each class, I take all these slips of paper back to my office. I trim them and, rereading as I go, I tape them, one by one, to my office door. It takes a good hour, but it’s an hour well spent.

The slips of paper make up a paper patchwork. They feature a hodge-podge of handwriting, scrawled or printed in shades of blue and black ink. The writing on each is as distinctive as the expectations written there. It looks a little crazy, a little chaotic, a little messy—but then again, isn’t that how life goes?

Besides, what matters is not the appearance, for slips of paper should not be judged by their tidiness any more than books should be judged by their covers. No, the slips of paper have a heft far beyond anything their appearance suggests.

I want to walk into the office every day and be reminded that I have students who depend on me.

They expect me to bring my A-game to class every day. They expect me to know my stuff. They expect me to help them learn.

I pull one slip of paper from the pile and deliberately tape it directly beneath the nameplate on the door. The student’s expectation sums up everything perfectly: “I expect you to make [this semester] worthwhile.”

My students deserve no less.

15 replies »

  1. Do I feel the need to kowtow to their every whim? Of course not. Do I feel the need to adopt the “customer’s always right” mentality of a retail business? Nope. Do I feel the need to please all the students all the time? Hardly.

    Don’t you think this very process sets up those kinds of expectations in them?

  2. Here’s what I would write if you asked me that question:

    I expect you to either teach me new skills or hone the ones I already have. To do that, you’ll need to hold me accountable for actually learning and improving. It does neither of us any good if I come out of this class no more skilled and/or knowledgeable than when I went in. If you are too lenient on me — if you let me get away with bullshit just because I might be able to outclass some of my fellow students — I will be disappointed. I expect you to be a crucible, and though I may complain about the smelting process, I want to come out more refined than when I went in, regardless of the grade you give me.

    Get many that say something like that?

  3. I know you went for the positive message here, Chris, but do you get any of those that reflect the attitude of too many students these days? You know, ones like the following:

    * I expect you to let me turn in my papers late, fail to participate equitably in class discussions, and generally treat the class as I would a transaction at McDonald’s – I pay my tuition, you give me credit, I get my diploma and claim I’m educated….

    * i expect you to let me lie to you about why I’m not doing my work, argue with you and accuse you of unfairness when you hold me to the standards clearly laid out in your syllabus, and try to manipulate, threaten, or bs you into allowing me to get credit for a course when I haven’t done the work – because, after all, this has worked for me before….

    * I expect you be be like a financial institution’s ATM – you should be available 24/7, respond instantly, and give me what I want with the least amount of time or effort investment on my part….

    I’m sure you do – and it’s a credit to you that you focus on the positive, Chris. May your work with your students continue to provide you with the inspiration and reward hat working with them clearly seems to do…. 🙂

  4. I expect a pony. No really, that’s what i’d write…because i’m a smartass. Also, perhaps parenthetically, I expect you to not downgrade me for refusing to capitalize “i” when it isn’t the first word in a sentence. After you’re done killing the TV, aim for the ego.

  5. I think this is great. Many times having the student or employee define their expectations it forces them to exclude the bullshit excuses like the one listed by Jim. when I took over in my current position I had all my direct reports think about and answer the following questions:

    1- What to you think we need to change?
    2- What should we keep the same?
    3- What do you hope I do in this position?
    4- What are you afraid I might do in this position?
    5- What advice do you have for me?

    I must say it was the best thing I could have done. I think this post reflects a similar feeling.

  6. Chris, I noticed all the boomers answers to your post and see that every generation finds fault with the next generation….yet the next generation seems to do well. Kids will be kids, although some never grow up, as seen on certain sites on the internet. Plato summed it up when quoting Socrates in Republic 4 when he said,

    “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for
    authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer
    rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents,
    chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their
    legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.”

  7. That crazy, unrealistic focus on the positive is probably why Chris is still teaching, teaching well and enjoying his work.

    Sam, instead of setting up those expectations of entitlement, I bet it actually gets them out into the open where they can be gently but firmly shot down. Starting from mutual understanding, even if you disagree, is a hell of a lot better than playing guessing games for half the year. I think so, anyway.

    • Maybe. It’s for certain that I didn’t figure out how to make it work with this gen of students. At least, the undergrads. I actually had pretty decent relationships with the Millennial grad students I taught.

      Of course, ultimately I was a better teacher the more advanced the students were. Better with grads than undergrads, better with upperclassmen than underclassmen, and so on. So the generational component is only part of the equation.

      Regardless, there are a number of people in Chris’s department who are very good at this particular task. Denny comes to mind, as does our old friend Felix Was.

  8. It worked pretty well with younger teens. That and merciless mockery. Wow, I miss my job like crazy.

  9. The newer the generation the wider the diparity in their engagement level. That’s why grad students are easier to teach. My GPA history (2.01 undergrad / 3.8 Graduate) is much more a refelction of my development as a mature adult who cared about his success than aout the teachers being either good or bad. At 18 I could bomb a class with a great teacher, but by 35 I could get a B from a horrible instructor.

  10. Important point developing. What one gets from higher education is in proportion to what puts into higher education. Grad students want to be there and that makes all the difference. Chris’s exercise is likely to foster the development of grad student type thinking about education by forcing the students to verbalize their expectations.

  11. The sooner you can make an educational system more transparent to its primary participants, the better.

    Information is power: from unwritten social and behavioral agendas and how the establishment’s hierarchy really works to concepts like prescriptive versus descriptive grammar and the advantages of mastering a standardized dialect. A human being who feels some control over his or her fate (and understanding your place in a system is immense power in itself) will be able to make informed choices, take intellectual chances and deal with consequences.

    I’ve known far too many teachers who seem genuinely afraid of their students, or worse yet, contemptuous and dismissive. Their classrooms are dead. Telling students the truth and asking them what they think works, if you have the guts to do it and the tenacity to follow through.