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.