Bad Days in the Classroom – Looking Back and Moving Forward

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By Gerry Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

Most of us have bad days in the classroom. We get confused and pull our students into that confusion. Students are listless, disengaged, and less prepared than we expect. Our great idea for a new way to approach a topic falls flat. Now what?

Here’s a process I’ve stumbled upon after three decades of teaching, including countless class periods that didn’t go quite as I had hoped.

Phase 1. Feel bad. During the class, my inner critic tells me, “This is not going well.” Immediately after class, my inner critic gives me unsolicited feedback, such as: “That really did not go well. Perhaps the students were to blame. No, wait, you were the problem. What were you thinking when you came up with that plan for class?” Etc.

Phase 2. Do something to silence the inner critic. I want my inner critic to shut up. He (she) is not helping me. I dive into some other project. Committee work suddenly looks appealing. Time to read email and respond to messages I’ve been ignoring. Grab my workout clothes and head to the gym.

Phase 3. Look back at the class and identify what went well and not so well. After muting my inner critic, or at least lowering the volume, I spend a few minutes finding good aspects of the class. I try to focus more on student learning than on my “performance.” Student comments in class indicated that they understood _____. Student questions showed that they were struggling appropriately with a difficult issue. The diagram of _____ on the board or a slide seemed to help frame the topic. Then I spend a few minutes identifying exactly what parts of the class did not work as I had hoped. The problems were too easy or too hard for most students. We got sidetracked on a tangent that did nothing to add to student learning. A student made a comment that some would consider offensive and I did not deal with it well, or at all. The lecture, simulation, small group activity, etc. didn’t add to students’ knowledge, skills, or professionalism.

Phase 4. Generate an idea to improve the class. Sometimes as I’m engaged in phase 3 I immediately have ideas to address the weak aspects of the class. Often, however, the “fixes” come to me slowly, over time. Either way, I try to write down those ideas, usually in my class notes, so I remember these ideas the next time I teach the course.

Phase 5. Prepare to have a good day. Nothing helps me get past a bad day as much as a good day. And the best way for me to have a good day is to prepare well and walk in to class enthused about being with my students in that fascinating interpersonal, intellectual, professional environment we call the classroom.

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