Friday, June 20, 2008

The “Good” Teacher

Dan RichardDan Richard

Office of Faculty Enhancement

I have never been one for labels. Something just feels wrong about putting a label on someone, as if everything they are can be summed up in one word, one category. At dinner parties, when people ask what I do for a living, I often tell them that I am a scientist or that I teach just to avoid the strange, wide-eyed looks and awkward pauses that follow when I tell people I am a psychologist. It seems that the category of “psychologist” carries with it a host of ideas and responses that, by its invocation, immediately turns every learning theorist, comparative psychologist, biopsychologist, developmentalist (-- and social psychologist) into a couch-toting, ego-peddling, Freudophile.

These cocktail-party experiences, coupled with a symphony of adolescent label-drama (I will spare you the details) and my familiarity with 1Henri Tajfel’s work on categorization and group behavior, have left me with both a healthy respect for and a general dislike of using category labels for people.

It was a surprise to me, then, at a checkout counter in a large membership warehouse store, that I was hoping, anticipating, and even wishing that someone would assign such a label to me.

It started as it usually does, with a quizzical look, a feeling of familiarity and anticipation that comes from an area of your being that is somehow secret and mysterious (I know this person from somewhere, but where?). As these feelings typically resolve themselves, I realized that I was standing face-to-face with a former student. I teach large sections of Social Psychology, so I have many occasions to come in contact with former students. During these times, I never know if they will be happy to see me (i.e., they did well in my class) or if they would rather avoid me (i.e., they did not do so well). The person at the checkout counter was smiling. This was a good sign.

We exchanged recognition statements – “I had you for my psychology class,” and “Yes, social psychology.” Now the real test begins. What will this student say about the class? What will the student say about me? Will I hear the words I so long to hear? Will I be categorized and labeled by this person?

Then, I heard the words, sweet and enchanting: “You’re a good teacher.” He must have noticed the change in my smile, from awkwardly apprehensive to graciously gleaming. He put me in the category of good teachers. All of the ISQ (course evaluation system) ratings and comments could not accomplish so much in such a short period of time as that one LABEL. Why did this arbitrary label (a label that I am sure the student did not give a second thought) mean so much to me?

Well, it may have something to do with how the brain works. Some models of the brain suggest that concepts operate as nodes (or connecting points) and that each concept is linked (through neural connections) with other concepts. One of the most important and frequently accessed concept in the human brain is “the self.” We know much about who we are because we spend a whole lot of time with ourselves. People learn about new concepts in the world often by figuring out how our “selves” relate to these concepts (see 2Kihlstrom, Beer,& Klein for a discussion of how this works). One thing that people know about who they are is that they are “good.” Humans place a high price on knowing that as individuals, we are connected to the concept of “good.” I guess that is why this student’s comment meant so much to me. I, and most other people, want to be categorized as “good.”

So, when you receive those not-so-positive ISQ (student rating) results, and you read those not-so-flattering comments, remember that the uneasy feeling you have is just your brain having trouble connecting your self-concept with those concepts. Too often, negative comments or evaluations can have such a negative impact on our emotions and motivation that we fail to take advantage of constructive criticism. If it helps to keep you motivated during ISQ season, just think back on those times when students made you feel that the world made sense by saying, “You’re a good teacher.”

1Tajfel, H., & Forgas, J. P. (2000). Social categorization: Cognitions, values and groups. New York: Psychology Press.

2Kihlstrom, J. F., Beer, J. S., & Klein, S. B. (2003). Self and identity as memory. New York: Guilford Press.

Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., Rudman, L. A., Farnham, S. D., Nosek, B. A., & Mellott, D. S. (2002). A unified theory of implicit attitudes, stereotypes, self-esteem, and self-concept. Psychological Review, 109, 3-25.

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