Professors Who Need Help, But Don’t Know It

[Note:  The examples below are composites of people I’ve known over the years from across our campus.  Please don’t try to assign an identity to any of them, as they are made up of several people each (and don’t assume any of them are you).  I’m using past tense for all of them, as all of them have at least one aspect from someone who not longer works here.]

One thing I’ve noticed in my thirteen years of being here (and in higher education) is that there are professors who struggle, but who still succeed, because they know how to take help (and they know that they need help).  Unfortunately, in that same time, I’ve seen a number of professors who don’t know they need help and, thus, don’t take it, or who are aware they need some sort of help, and, for whatever reason, choose not to seek it out or take it.  The first situation is probably cause by some sort of innocence (or cluelessness, to be harsher), while the latter seems caused by pride, but could also be a sort of naivety about how the higher education system works.

For some professors, their problems stem from the classroom.  I have seen a professor simply teach badly and have no idea she was doing so.  She would get bad evaluations every semester, and she would simply not understand why.  Of course, she would often blame the students, saying that they weren’t prepared for the rigors of her class or weren’t willing to do the work required, or arguing that they had something personal against her.  She continued talking in such a way even when all of the evidence pointed to a different conclusion, the one she wasn’t willing to come to about herself.

Those same students succeed in other faculty members’ classes, even the most challenging.  In conversations with those students, I heard that they actually did like the professor and wanted her to succeed.  They even tried to put comments on the evaluations to help her improve, but they never seemed to help.  The professor simply didn’t see that she was the one who needed to improve, and I didn’t know how to help her.

I would talk to her fairly regularly and ask how things were going, only to hear the same complaints.  I would (kindly) point out that those students were doing well in other classes, how hard they were working, and how they seemed to like her, given what I could gather.  She seemed not to want to hear it, though, as if not hearing it would make it not true.  I didn’t know what I could do to help beyond what I had already said.  I’m not sure how to make someone see what they don’t want to see.

In another case, a professor was outstanding in the classroom, but she didn’t succeed within the department.  This isn’t a case of someone not understanding the dynamics or politics of a place, but of someone who seemed not to want to engage.  I seldom saw her outside of meetings, as she was around only the bare minimum number of hours we were required to be on campus (not a way to succeed at our university).  When she received feedback about her behavior, instead of honestly seeking help, she went around the department asking us point blank if she was not collegial (the wording she was given).  A number of us tried to help her see the criticism for what it was, but she never did.

In a similar case, a professor did try to make changes, but they were all superficial.  He talked about keeping his door open more often when he was there, but he did nothing to improve his engagement with his peers or his students.  It was clear from his behavior that he never really wanted to be on campus, that he always wanted to be somewhere else.  Keeping the door open more often didn’t change that.  Unfortunately, when he and I would talk about his struggles, I didn’t know how to communicate the deeper change he needed to make.  I still don’t know how to convey that to someone who is struggling.  What I want to say is that they need to care more about their job and their students, but none of us can make someone else do that.

That is the problem I have in all of these cases.  I don’t know what to tell people to help them improve.  In many instances, they simply don’t see that they need to make any changes, pushing the blame away from themselves onto the students, the department, or the administration.  At other times, the only advice I can give them is practical, which doesn’t get to the core of the problem.  I don’t know how to say to colleagues that they need to care more about the work they do and about their students.

There are skills one can learn to be a better teacher, without question.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, if there’s not something underneath it all that can’t be taught, that we’re simply born with.  I don’t want to believe that, as that implies that none of these people will ever get better, whether they’re still here or elsewhere.  I do believe people can change, so I have to believe people can become better professors in a way that goes beyond the surface.

In fact, I changed in that way.  I always had a certain level of ability when it came to teaching, but I didn’t begin to really improve until I took my job seriously and really began to care about my students.  No one told me I needed to do it; I simply decided if I was going to spend so much of my life doing something, I should do it well.  Perhaps I can find a way to communicate that to those who need help.  Perhaps, like me, no one can tell them, but they can figure it out on their own.


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