It was the longest standing ovation I’ve ever been part of… and it was for a teacher.
125 students. End of the last class, end of semester. My first course in college, 8:00am Mondays. Some 30 lectures, each 50 minutes long. A professor passionate about the history of architecture. And, as it were, a subject he knew inside and out.
Though he did not even know my name, I rose with 124 others, at once and as one as soon as he finished his last lecture. The applause didn’t let up. I checked my watch. Over three minutes later, we sat down, collected our books, and left the lecture room as changed learners.
That is, we left as real learners, for learning is change.
Can you change more in a smaller class?
Common sense says class size matters. A smaller class should help learning. I’d sure rather teach 16 students than 36.
But the excellence of the teacher matters more. The proof doesn’t require research, just more common sense: A boring teacher who can’t engage students is ineffectual. Ten students or 100, it doesn’t make a difference. That teacher won’t make a difference.
As Ann Lieberman, Stanford University and author of Teacher Leadership, says in our documentary Passion to Teach, “It’s making the right connections and learning the ways of engaging students which is the real thrill of teaching.” There is an undeniable reward, even an ecstasy, in such experiences. For both teacher and learner. Sometimes those connections become a work of art... sometimes, even, worthy of an ovation.
So the question that matters more than class size is, “How does a teacher successfully engage students no matter class size?”
From Amy Lake in Passion to Teach to my history of architecture professor – that is, from small classes to large – there are tried-and-true answers: Be passionate. Be genuinely enthused about your subject. Have a personal stake in it. Show that stake. Genuinely care for your students by giving them material that matters to their lives. Stuff that counts isn’t boring. Make it real. Connect your learners to the real world around them and to their place in it.
A skillful teacher can do all these things even if the student/teacher ratio is 30:1. You can do it in a 1:1 tutorial. You can do it in an all-class lecture. You can do it when 24 students are divided in half or thirds or into six groups of four.
Engagement is not only the real thrill of teaching, but it is also the real trick to effective classroom management. Boredom increases behavioral problems. Connection minimizes them.
There may be times when your students express their appreciation for your passion and competence while they are still your students. Lucky you. More like than not, years will go by before you get that standing O of whatever sort. If it comes at all. No matter. The real thrill of teaching is enough.