My 5 Keys to the Classroom

On Tuesday evening I wrapped up my 4th semester at NYU SPS teaching Social Media and the Brand. It was the largest group to date- 23 total- and probably the most diverse as well. My students hailed from across the US as well as from South Africa, the UK, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela. Experience-wise, it was a strong blend of professionals looking to add to their skillset and full-time students. As a group it was definitely the most engaged and talented bunch I’ve taught so far- which makes me excited for where the Integrated Marketing degree at NYU SPS is headed.

Anyone whose taught will tell you that a class of engaged students is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly rewarding- because you get a sense that they actually care. BUT, particularly for those of us who battle demons of imposter syndrome, it can be daunting- because they WILL challenge you. This can all too easily turn your classroom into an egotistical clash of wills where student questions feel like a zero-sum game. When I was a student I remember all too well a few professors who fell into that trap- and honestly it was embarrassing to witness for all involved. I’ve also seen this happen in professional settings where insecure bosses feel that they have to be the authors of all worthwhile ideas. In both cases it’s the quickest way to loose innovation.

While students may not choose to drop your class they will check-out- and that’s a sad loss for all concerned. I gauge my success over a semester by the degree to which I feel I’ve created a space for sharing knowledge. There are always quiet students- and I make it my mission to make them comfortable speaking up. I feel a thrill of success when they raise their hand to share an insight or ask a question. It’s difficult- particularly when the language of instruction is second or third for the majority of the class.

Culture also plays a part- the American classroom is one of the more participatory. Over the past few semesters, I’ve learned that going around the room to ask each student to share a thought about the week’s reading is often more productive than inviting them to raise their hands. Because the classroom should not be about a clash of wills or egos or Type A personalities- it should be about a collective learning experience. Otherwise- what’s the point? I’m painfully aware that there digital alternatives to my course and it’s up to me to create a value-add for my students so that they tune into my class. If I don’t want my students to simply treat my class as a necessary check-off on their way to an NYU degree- I have to “bring it”.

I know that the fall semester is just a few weeks away and in that spirit I wanted to share 5 keys to creating a successful classroom culture.

  1. Check your ego at the door:

    This is huge particularly for anyone teaching social and digital media. I actually set the stage on day 1 of teaching. I introduce myself to my students talking about the range of experience I’ve had in professional settings, applying social media tactics to business problems. But I make it clear to them that I too am constantly learning and invite them to share any specialized knowledge they have. This helps to defuse their egos as well- because there are students who enjoy showing up professors (particularly female ones). By defining my role as a discussion leader, based on my professional experience, I keep it from being any type of zero-sum game.

  2. Take time to get to know your students and their personal expertise:

    Again, this occurs on day 1. I go around the room and ask all of my students to tell me their names, where they are from and what they want to get out of my class. I then make sure to take this into account for the rest of the semester. For example, this summer I had several students tell me that they had a background in analytics. I knew that my analytics stand-alone class was one of the shakier ones so I used this information to make sure to invest time in revamping it. I also took the time to weave in analytics into other parts of the curriculum and invited the students who had deep backgrounds in it to share their expertise during those lectures.

  3. Let them talk and share their ideas:

    This is something that is hard for me to do and has taken me several semesters to really buy into. When I was a student I always hated prolonged class discussions- I wanted to hear from the expert in the room. But now that I’m teaching I’ve found that there’s a balance and it’s really useful particularly for students who do have professional expertise. Letting them share this gives them a bigger stake in the class. On a practical side, it also adds to my credibility as an instructor when they share a professional example that illustrates the principle I’m working to get across. A big part of this is also to never EVER dismiss a student’s idea or try to embarrass them by being a smart ass. You can always say something like “that’s an interesting idea” or “I hadn’t really thought of it like that before”. If the student is totally off-base then turn it into a conversation- I often use these instances as examples to students of the different perspectives that come to bare in crafting a social strategy.

  4. Be practical- address what your students NEED to get out of taking this class:

    In my case this is a class for a professional graduate degree. So I try to tie everything I teach back to a professional skill that my students can use when they are either in a job or trying to land one. When I was teaching undergrads at the University of Virginia, I tried to teach them how to make strong arguments and write well. But I also made sure to be transparent about what they needed to do to get the grade they wanted out of the class. Most of your students are taking your class to fulfill a requirement- so get over yourself. It’s up to you to help them realize that this class can actually be useful for them. This is an attitude I SO wish more of my professors had adopted when I was a student.

  5. Set the a tone of professionalism:

    For several semesters I struggled with how to deal with cellphone use, laptop use for other activities, and stupid grammar/spelling mistakes. I finally came up with a solution that seems to be working. I tell my students that a critical component for their careers is pay attention to coming across as a professional. Texting would never fly in a business meeting. Similarly, I tell them, that when they use their laptops to shop, scroll through images, or otherwise not pay attention- it’s sending me a signal that they don’t care. Which, when I grade them, will keep me from giving them the benefit of a doubt. Similarly, not doing a simple grammar/spell-check on their laptop conveys to me that they don’t care. I use all of these as educational opportunities for them. It’s not about my personal preference or something that is irritating- it’s about preparing them for the professional world. I then do the same thing- I treat them with respect, make my guidelines transparent and try to be as organized as I can. This changes the conversation and, ultimately, will help them in the future.

Teaching is difficult. But I’ve found no greater joy than hearing one of my students make an observation that they would not have made at the beginning of the course. In an age of debate about the overall value of a college education, as instructors we have the ability to demonstrate our worth by creating positive and vibrant classroom cultures dedicated to innovation and respect.

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