Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Strict vs. kind teachers

Viola Swamp, from Miss Nelson is Missing This morning I'm having flashbacks to to the children's book Miss Nelson is Missing, which is about a "nice" teacher whose misbehaving students take advantage of her kindness; so she comes back disguised as a very mean substitute teacher, Miss Viola Swamp, and the kids eventually realize they should appreciate Miss Nelson. (Because our society equates beauty with value, you can correctly deduce that the illustration above is of Miss Swamp.)

I was having a conversation with a classmate yesterday about teaching styles. On a discipline spectrum, the SOM staff seems to run a wide range. Is one style "better" than the other?

1. "Mean" teachers. On one hand, I like that these teachers promote behaviors and values I think are important -- promptness, preparation, intelligence, confidence. "Mean" teachers keep control by creating an atmosphere that is tense, or even adversarial. This keeps people alert and ready. And in general it works (i.e. "Boy, s/he is tough! I better come prepared and on time, lest I look the fool.") On the other hand, this approach can be not only unpleasant and condescending, but also potentially indicative of the professor reaching beyond a suitable level of control. We are adults, after all. Should we not be trusted to prioritize our own time between our various classes, clubs, interests, career searches, social lives and families? Some would say no, and others yes. I can see both points of view.

2. "Nice" teachers. "Nice" teachers are always appreciated, but are they as effective as "mean" ones? I'd say it depends. On one hand, some "nice" teachers prove they can be warm and respectful while keeping students attentive and hardworking. I won't name names, but "nice" doesn't necessarily mean easy. If a professor has credibility and is well-prepared and has high expectations, s/he can be effective without treating students like naughty little kids. On the other hand, it's also possible to be a "nice" teacher to the point of ineffectiveness. And I think this is especially true of professors who don't solicit comments or foster participation, and don't collect much or any homework for credit. That can be a dangerous combination: nonthreatening, and nonparticipatory. A recipe for people to not do work.

In the end, I don't necessarily think it's intrinsically better to be a "mean" or "nice" teacher; whether it's effective depends on the person and the subject. But the issue also has its roots in the question of what the point of graduate school is: Is it a boot camp we're willingly subjecting ourselves to, or an abundance of resources and services we're paying a high premium for?

1 comment:

  1. I had a really traumatic memory that crept into my mind a few months ago that I'd buried mentally for years (rightfully so). We had this freaky nun at my old Catholic school, Sister Theresa, who totally beat me up because I closed the top of my 4's (as written in the computer numeral '4'). Last time I checked, this is, like, not a sin. The punishment was massively disproportionate to the situation and I wrote four's with open tops ever since. How messed up is that?! Anywho, I seriously doubt you are going to encounter that level of psychosis at Yale (one can only hope!).