“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” –Albert Einstein
Last month, an interesting conversation happened on the topic of the most difficult course that a student takes in their studies.
The question, of course, was asking about most difficult in terms of the course content that the student must learn. In any field, there are plenty of options to choose from, and while an individual student’s mileage may vary, teachers and professors tend to learn very quickly just which courses (and what course material) students have the most difficulty gaining a working understanding of. On that topic, I have to agree with Chad that, for an undergraduate physics major, the advanced electromagnetism course is the toughest.
But I thought it’d be much more interesting — on behalf of all teachers at all levels — to take on the following question:
What is the most difficult course to teach?
Having taught a huge variety of courses over my life, ranging from public secondary school to high school to public and private Colleges and Universities, I have to say that the courses with the most difficult content are by no means the most difficult courses to teach.
In my experience, the most difficult course to teach is the one where you, the teacher, cannot control what or how you are teaching.
There are a handful of qualities that are basically required of an individual to be a good teacher; qualities for which there are no substitute. A good teacher — in my experience — must be:
- Competent: with the curriculum/subject matter that they’re teaching,
- Attentive: to the skill level, needs, and abilities of the students,
- Prepared: to explain, demonstrate, and challenge students in a variety of ways,
- Empowered: to teach the material in whatever way, however unorthodox or creative, they see fit, and
- Self-aware: of their own strengths, weaknesses, abilities and limitation.
Let me share two important secrets with you.
1.) There is no amount of control you can take away from a bad teacher that will turn them into a good teacher.
2.) There is nothing worse you can do to a good teacher than take away their autonomy as to how and what they teach to their students in their classrooms.
That’s it. We’ve all had experiences of good and bad teachers that have been seared into our memories, but all of my best experiences would never have happened if my education was as micromanaged as many classrooms are today.
And that’s truly a shame. Because the best courses I’ve ever taught are — at least from my perspective — college-level introductory astronomy and the advanced electromagnetism course mentioned above.
For both of those courses, I had complete creative control over everything: the material covered, the assignments, the exams, etc. I could take the journey that I not only chose with my students, I could tailor that journey to their needs and abilities, my strengths, and all the other obligations and necessities that came up.
And we had a ball. They got to learn skills and take on challenges that they wouldn’t have been confronted with anywhere else; they got an experience that was unique to having me as their teacher. And it was a joy, for me, too. On the other hand…
what was the most difficult course I’ve had to teach? That would have to be the introductory physics course geared towards non-majors. The curriculum is simply too rigid and comprehensive to do a high-quality job in the time allotted to do it. It is a curriculum that has been unreasonably standardized for the skill level of most students. As a result, a teacher is either forced to skip many important topics that students will be held responsible for, or to expose the students to a great deal of material without the time necessary to teach for mastery. Either way, it’s a losing proposition, and one that a great many teachers (and students) resent.
If you want your children to get the highest quality education possible, don’t forget this lesson. Demand competent, attentive, prepared and self-aware teachers, and make sure you empower them to do the best job that they can do!