Three Thoughts About…Teaching

I have been teaching writing for over 25 years, and during my 17 years in Portland State University’s creative writing program, the students chose me to receive the English department’s John Eliot Allen Outstanding Teacher Award five times–almost every year I was eligible. (You had to sit out two years each time you won it.) I mention this only to suggest I know a little bit about teaching writing. Or maybe just teaching in general.

Whenever I received one of the Allen awards, people would ask me the secret to good teaching. My answer was always that you have to love your students, caring about them as individuals. Beyond that, every teacher has to teach in her own way, according to her own personality and vision. Here are three basic principles that have worked for me:

  1. Challenge students to achieve beyond what they think they’re capable of doing by setting high goals and high standards.
  2. Actively and persistently help each student to achieve those goals and maintain those standards, without relenting.
  3. Work harder than your students work.

And one more thing: Encourage your students in every possible way at every possible moment.

The most consistent thing students have said about my teaching is that I’m tough but fair. If you aren’t tough, you aren’t helping students do anything more than they could do on their own, in which case they don’t need a teacher. If you aren’t fair, they’re going to stop listening to you no matter how right you are about what you’re trying to teach them.