a quick guide to being a great teacher

Like my title? Yeah, that’s clickbait. (And if you’re a teacher, you should know that.) But it also fits the story I want to tell you today.

Since 2016, when I designed the main online college course I teach right now, I have been requiring students to create a “research quick guide” in one of the last modules. The assignment is supposed to get them to reflect on what they know about how to do research in their field (“field” can be academic or professional, or in the case of my creative writing students, genre) and come up with a succinct way to share that knowledge with others. The important thing is the content, but somewhere along the line, I’ve gotten a little hung up on the design element of the assignment. I often find myself deducting points when a student’s guide is “hard to visually scan” or “more of an essay than a quick guide.” The problem is that there’s not a general consensus across contexts as to what a “quick guide” actually is. I’m committing that terrible teacher sin of asking my students to read my mind.

I should also point out that it’s pretty ironic that I’m judging other people’s design skills, as may be evident from the fact that I’m still using this template from when I started this blog in 2011. I mean, I know basic principles like “don’t use Comic Sans in a work email” and “don’t put too many words on a PowerPoint slide (and then turn your back to the audience and read straight from said wordy slide),” but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So not only am I asking students to read my mind, but I’m also asking them to do something I don’t really know how to do myself.

Now, as part of a larger update of the course, I’ve set out to create a quick guide for my students. My initial motivation for this project was not to create a quick guide as such; instead, I wanted to respond to a suggestion a student made last fall. (I’ve been carrying around the now-grubby no-longer-sticky note in my planner ever since then.) It turned out that some of the off-hand tips I gave her in emails were actually quite revelatory for her as a first-time online graduate student who hadn’t written an academic paper in years, and she thought that other students might also benefit from the advice. She suggested some categories, like “how to check grades and feedback,” “what is an annotated bibliography?,” and “getting to know your professor.”

Meanwhile, many students have asked for an example quick guide, so I decided to combine these two endeavors. I would create a quick guide to being an English 602 student (very meta, if you ask me). I hoped to be able to send this out to current and future students and tell them, “Hey, I’m not a designer, but I made this in Word and it wasn’t that hard and didn’t take me that long. You can do it too!”

I finally started on the document yesterday. For visual interest, I decided to use a variety of Word’s prefabricated text boxes and sidebars. I also used some relevant clip art icons to create a short border between two of the sections, and I inserted a photo from my computer. Nothing fancy, but I think it looks pretty good (though I still need to do the second page).

Here’s the problem: It wasn’t easy. Once I got some of the text boxes on the page, dragging them around to accommodate new elements was frustratingly difficult. Inserting and resizing the picture was a stab in the dark–I wasn’t sure what those numbers meant or why most of the photo had disappeared off the bottom of the page. I had to get my husband to help me, and even he, who’s all-around better at this stuff than I am, admitted that he didn’t know how to do everything I wanted to do.

So I don’t feel honest telling my students that creating a document like this will be easy. I sometimes have students who have design backgrounds or who use Publisher regularly in their work, and they turn in beautiful, readable, user-friendly quick guides. But for students who are having trouble centering their title or inserting a paragraph break in a basic essay, what I’m asking them to do in this assignment could be panic-inducing.

I’m going to finish the quick guide and send it to my students with the message I had planned to give them, minus “it wasn’t that easy and didn’t take me that long.” I am also going to add that their quick guide doesn’t need to look as good as mine; even some bullet points or a numbered list will show me that they’re thinking about how not to overwhelm their readers. I am going to continue assigning the quick guide, because I think it’s useful for students to work on problem-solving skills in a class about workplace writing–who knows what their bosses may ask them to create someday? But now that I’ve gone through the process of creating a quick guide myself, I’ve learned what’s most important about this assignment, and I’ve developed some empathy for my students. And I’ll be able to answer questions better in the future.

Lesson learned: Don’t ask your students to do something you’ve never done yourself. That may not be a quick guide to becoming a great teacher, but it might be a small step to becoming at least a good one.

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