Be my athlete, I’ll be your coach (a letter to my students)

Last week, one of your classmates asked me to delay his final exam by a day. He just needed more time to study. “The customer is always right,” he pleaded, as if I were selling televisions. While I know that most of you wouldn’t go that far, the experience got me thinking about the nature of education, and I suspect that many of you agree that since you pay dearly for your education, we owe you the deference given a customer in any respectable business.

I completely reject that education is a service for hire, where the student, as the customer, gets to set the terms. Don’t get me wrong. You have every right to decide what to do with your life and you deserve universities and professors that meet your needs. No matter what you pay, your professors and staff should do their jobs well and contentiously. However, once you decide to pursue a particular field of study, the reality is that you are almost completely ignorant about what others in the field expect from you: the knowledge you need, the skills you must hone, and the attitudes that are important.

I’ll offer a personal analogy to explain further. I used to be a competitive athlete; I wasn’t great, but I was competitive enough to hire a coach. I was certainly the boss in one sense. If he didn’t give me a training plan or if he didn’t show up to lead the workouts, I would have stopped paying him and the arrangement would have been over. Yet, he was the boss in a more important regard. I hired him because I didn’t know what it took to excel at the sport. I had to listen to him. I had to do what he told me. If a workout hurt, I never said “aw, c’mon coach, ease up on the workout or I won’t pay you.” If he yelled at me to do more, I would do more, simple as that.

I’m your coach in exactly the same way. You have complete freedom to decide what major to pursue, but once you choose a major, you simply don’t know what it means to succeed in the major. If I require work of you, set limits, or otherwise seem to want to make your life disagreeable, it’s because it will make you better. I don’t prefer to make your life disagreeable, but just as empty praise and unrealistic expectations of success will not transform an athlete into an Olympian, the easy A will not make you competitive after graduation.

Even though I don’t see you as my customer, I do feel that I owe you a lot. I owe it to you no matter how much tuition you pay. I owe it to you because it’s what it means to be a good professor. My job is to bust my ass for you every day. My job is to listen to you to make sure that the curriculum is in line with your greater goals (but also my understanding of what you need to learn). My job is to hunt for the best approaches for you learn. My job to motivate you (although a minimum of motivation has to come from you). My job is to make you work hard, because hard work is the only way to get good. Lastly, my job is to be honest, praising you when you do well and telling you when you have failed.

With this in mind, I urge you to do some serious reflection. Why are you in the major? Does it match your life goals and ambitions. If it doesn’t, come talk to me so we can find something better for you to do (inside or outside of the university). If this is the right path for you, then let go. Trust that I have your best interest in mind and that I am dedicated to your success. I’m always open to hearing constructive criticism about my teaching and I’m always willing to explain why we need to do what we’re doing. I’m willing to be your advocate against mediocre faculty and staff (I know you face more of them than you should – I see them too). But I need you to do your part. Work hard, embrace challenge, and do all of what I ask you to do with the confidence that it will make you better.

Be my athlete. I’ll be your coach.

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8 Responses to Be my athlete, I’ll be your coach (a letter to my students)

  1. Duke says:

    Well said, and worthy of any student’s embrace. Professionals (like teachers) are hired for their expertise. We hire doctors to diagnose our ills, not simply give us whatever pills we demand. In a similar fashion, teachers are hired to impart education, not hand out grades for diplomas. Kids seem to think paying tuition should buy them a degree. Tuition merely grants the ability to earn a degree if you apply yourself and work for it. The “work for it” part seems to give kids trouble.

    I am also from a professional field (Electrical Engineering). Kids want to buy software instead of learning the fundamentals of engineering analysis. When computers to do the thinking, students never learn how to solve problems themselves. It is the ability to critically analyze that makes a good engineer. Unfortunately, colleges are no longer stressing this aspect. I managed a large engineering department. I had to fire many new college grads over a lack of critical thinking. In my opinion, colleges are doing students a huge disservice when the most important part of their education is almost totally left out. There is no place for you in engineering if you cannot logically obtain the Root Cause of an issue. It’s what colleges should teach, not pushing computer buttons. Anyone can push buttons.

    Your post gives me hope. Teachers still exist in the true sense of the word. I take my hat off to you.

  2. I thank you heartily for your kind remarks. I’m only a small part of a huge system that needs to be improved. I do what I can. I fear it won’t be enough.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s valuable to me as an educator to get outside perspectives about what our students need. I can relate to your concerns with college graduates. I find that many of my students are afraid to follow a sequence of logical arguments to their natural conclusion. They stop trying when the going gets tough. They have the prerequisite knowledge and skill set, but can’t put it to creative use. It’s frustrating and it’s my present day challenge. How do I get them past this hump?

    Once again, thanks for your kind comments.

  3. Duke says:

    What is your opinion for the lack of problem solving? Is it too late once they get to college because secondary schools have failed? I’ve noticed a distinct generational division between ages. People 40 and over seem capable but those under 40 have trouble. It’s like you say, they hit a wall after a certain point. They don’t seem to understand even when you explain it. I’m completely without ideas but have great interest in yours.

    • I suspect that secondary education is partly to blame, perhaps because of the focus on continual testing on low complexity knowledge. I find that my students “know things” but aren’t able to recall them when necessary or use them in a novel context. I don’t think it’s too late at the university level, but we do need to change the way we teach. I also suspect that universities are to blame for two reasons: some of the faculty just don’t care all that much and there’s a big administrative focus on stats such as graduation rate at the expense of graduation quality. These are just opinions based on my experience at my university. I’m not sure how applicable they are in general.

      • Duke says:

        I appreciate your frank response but it makes me wonder if many professors are capable of problem solving? Are we expecting them to instill students with something the teachers do not possess? My Masters classes were all back in the 1980’s so I’m not qualified to judge.

        I understand this blog is not an appropriate place to discuss your job or fellow workers. I will not ask your opinion. I’ll just say the kids in college are the next generation of professors. Effective problem solving skills must be stressed or it will be lost to all who come after.

        I am encouraged by your appreciation of problem solving in education and by your willingness to address it.

        • I fully agree that the ability to comprehend and disect complex problems is about the most imporant skill we should be imparting on our students. I do think that professors are very capable of problem solving. Everybody in that position has done some pretty remarkable research, which (at least in engineering) is just a large problem solving task. What I may agree with is that professors do not to *teach* problem solving well, either out of disinterest or lack of pedagogical skill (none of us were ever taught how to teach – just how to research). Admittedly, the flavor of problem solving is different than what is done in practice, but it is a matter of debate whether this is good or bad. I lean towards good – academics are good at general principles. Industry is good at industry-specific applications.

          • Duke says:

            I can relate a personal story concerning academics. In industry, it is possible to gain a specific expertise without attending college. Some people work in a single area long enough to know all the in’s and out’s. They are considered ‘expert’ due to experience and ability to successfully complete jobs. In all cases, these people resent being paid less than engineers (if they are) simply over what they feel is lack of a degree. What they don’t understand is without the general academic foundation of an engineer, they are a one-trick pony. All of them I’ve worked with also lack the ability analyze complex problems. College develops a long list of necessary attributes besides technical skills. I have never worked with a non-degree’d person who could function outside their small world. Good engineers can be flexible across many specialties.

            As a manager, I dealt with this situation every day. Although the non-degree personnel could never grasp the meaning of education, it was obvious to engineers. College is where you learn technical knowledge but also the skills to apply them. In the real world there is no instructor to give you answers. You must figure out the solutions yourself or you’ll soon be jobless. Anyway, that is my 2 cents worth. Thank you for the responses.

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