Teaching is believing

As the executive director of the Diversity Center, I wear several hats. I am an administrator, adviser, trainer and instructor. I also serve as a cheerleader and an advocate for diversity and inclusion. The work of my department is explained on our webpage at http://diversity.luther.edu. Although I am primarily responsible for the team dedicated to helping everyone improve the climate for diversity on campus, I also have a small teaching load. Because I don't get to talk about my teaching, I'm happy to devote this blog to my thoughts on the topic.

Teaching believes in students

The greatest contribution to teaching that any of us can make is to believe in our students. A fairly recent story, when I was with my daughter in a restaurant in Iowa City, brings this commitment to light. As my daughter and I walked up to the counter to pay our bill, a young woman standing in line in front of our family turned and looked at me. She smiled and said, "I know you!" She was so excited that she was almost shouting! Startled, I said nothing but she kept talking, you taught a Black Studies course at the University of Illinois in the mid-1980s. I nodded and then she said, "You were my professor!" 

Most instructors have had this experience.  Students often remember us, for better or worse. But this was the first time I had one of my adult children present when a former student gave an impromptu testimonial, so I asked her to remind me of her name and nudged my daughter forward. It was during the daughter-former student conversation that we learned something exciting. Both of these African-American women were academics. Bridgette is an associate professor in English and Africana Studies at the University of Iowa. My daughter was at U of I interviewing for a post-doc at the Medical School. Of course, I was proud of the small role I played in both women's successes but I didn't expect to hear what Bridgette said next. To explain why she remembered me so vividly, she recounted an incident in my classroom. She said that she was scheduled to do a presentation on one of our assigned books. She admitted that she was unprepared and reminded me that I called her on it. According to her account, I politely interrupted her and rescheduled the presentation. Apparently, I simply said that she had more work to do in a compassionate yet firm way. 

Life has second chances and learning should too 

As Bridgette remembers it, after class, I provided additional information about what was expected and encouraged her. According to her, the second chance presentation was really much better. She ended this story with the fact that she uses a similar approach with unprepared students in her own classes. When she uses this technique, she lets her students know that being prepared is an important part of what’s required in class and in life. She tells her students that she believes in their ability to perform at their best.   

The art of teaching

Becoming the most effective teacher possible requires the best pedagogy you can develop. Like most professors at Luther, I continuously work to master a range of methods, a variety of strategies and several different instructional contexts. Luther professors are well prepared to teach content, skills and attitudes within their disciplines. But their most valuable asset is that Luther professors believe that all students can learn. They know their students as people and help them with the motivation, skill-building and practice they need to succeed. Some students perform better than others and it's easier to gravitate toward the "high fliers,"’ but Luther professors become effective teachers who give most students the opportunity to overcome barriers to learning.   

Believing matters

I believe in students today just as much, if not more, than I did when I started teaching. I know how powerful believing in students is for them and for our society. Believing is not just blind faith or a platitudinous emotion. Bridgette reminded me that believing is the willingness to challenge students. Believing is insisting that students understand what it takes to learn. For me, teaching believes in students. From direct instruction, to discussions for critical thinking, or from learning projects to second chances, I believe in prompt and effective feedback. Believing is treating our students as people and giving them chances to demonstrate what they are learning. Believing in students helps them to believe in themselves. I can't wait to see what a Luther student will tell my grandchildren, one day.

Sheila Radford-Hill Headshot

Sheila Radford-Hill is an educator, author and community activist who became the first executive director of the Luther Diversity Center in August 2003. Her responsibilities involve extending the benefits of diversity at the college and serving faculty and students as a resource for inclusion. She is a faculty associate who teaches Paideia II courses and a course in English, Africana studies, and women and gender studies. 

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  • November 22 2013 at 7:13 am
    Beth Lynch
    Nice story, Sheila. What I think is great about the incident that you described is that you treated the student as if the work was "for real", not just an exercise to get done with to satisfy a requirement. There was a job to be done, you knew she could do it, and you told her so. The more our class assignments feel like "real" professional work assignments, the more we can ask of our students. And, the more they will learn from the experience. Clearly this one did!
  • November 22 2013 at 9:18 am
    Kathy Kerber

    A wonderful story, Sheila.  I understand what it means to have someone from your past tell you that you made in a difference in their lives, and that they learned from you. I've had a number of such experiences, but 2 stand out in my mind.  One was one of my former high school students telling me, years after she had left high school, that she was still reading and writing poetry.   The other was a former Luther student--with whom I had worked closely during her years at Luther-- who told me that I was the reason that she could finish college.  (That obviously was not entirely true, but it felt good anyway.) 

  • November 23 2013 at 7:23 pm
    David Tiede
    As you define it, "believing in students" clearly means extending the respect of high expectations. What a rich definition of the calling to be a teacher, and your story confirms the reality. Sheila Radford-Hill, Luther College is blessed by your leadership as an educator as well as being the Executive Director of our Diversity Center.
  • November 25 2013 at 10:12 am
    Sheila Radford-Hill
    Thanks for these comments. I've written each of you individually but collectively these comments are a great gift. We need opportunities to speak publicly about what teaching means to us and to the students we work with.
  • December 5 2013 at 11:41 am
    Lise Kildegaard

    Thanks for sharing this. I can easily imagine you compassionately and firmly directing the student to try again. Your story helps me think about how I can treat failure as an opportunity for better learning and growth.

  • December 5 2013 at 12:15 pm
    Sheila Radford-Hill
    Lise, Although I've been trying to perfect the art of teaching for some time, a great deal of what inspires me comes from the energy and commitment to first year students that many Luther teachers have shown me over the years. You are one of these teachers. Thanks for reading my comments.
  • February 27 2014 at 12:16 pm
    Joel Gasway
    Nice blog, I can really tell how much you love teaching people not only off this article, but personal experiences in class/life as well.
  • February 27 2014 at 2:34 pm
    Sheila Radford-Hill

    Joel, thanks for reading these comments. One of the pleasures of teaching is that you meet great students . . . like you, for instance.

  • August 6 2014 at 9:45 pm
    Kayla Nelson
    Great story/ blog Sheila. You are a great educator, really just great person. Blessed to have had you as a professor during my time at Luther.

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