What teaching should also be about

“… education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six-figure salaries. School should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge to its citizens, just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.”
Sam in “The West Wing”

I am currently doing some courses in teaching. When I thought about teaching and what I want to achieve, I came up with a short, one-sentence definition of how I see myself as a teacher:

With my teaching, I aim to:
punish the cheaters,
expose the dazzlers,
support the strugglers, and
reward the performers.

This assessment is a modification of a quote from

a politician (Guido Westerwelle) of a German political party (“liberals”, no endorsement here, but the quote is good):

“Meine Politik fördert die Fleißigen, schützt die Schwachen und bestraft die Faulen. Es gibt kein Recht auf staatlich bezahlte Faulheit.”

which roughly translates to:

“My politics supports the diligent, protects the weak, and punishes the lazy. There is no right to state-financed laziness.”

Sure, teaching (and education!) should open minds (but not so much that the brain falls out!) and give tools for thinking, and education should be more than certificates and grades, but I also think this adaptation of that quotation has its point.

We need to make sure that students who cheat are punished — plagiarism, or — even worse — data manipulation and falsification is no way to get good grades. These people should fail and spend an additional semester or year contemplating their actions and gaining the necessary skills (not better cheating abilities!). After all, they are sacrificing the future for their short-term personal gains. (I am indebted to the university library here — you get an interesting impression of today’s students when you sit in the group work room and look and listen to them. Some waste their time by trying to impress others, without learning anything.

Likewise dazzlers who do not really understand what they are talking about, or — even worse — try to manipulate their supervisors in doing their work for them should be exposed for the fake they are (business studies students — I am talking to you). After all, they could do real damage later in life — science, being able to collect real data and analyze it correctly matters!

But on the other hand, anyone who wants to succeed and works for it should be supported, and once they succeed they should be rewarded. These are the people who strive for excellence, not just for show, and you should open the doors for them.

After all, the least we can do when we are in (relatively) advanced positions in life is to make sure the best people end up in positions of power.

And this way, teaching actually has a meaning — and is fun.

Enjoy making a difference. 🙂


  1. This definition of teaching bothers me as I don’t think it’s what teaching should be about at all. It’s all about rewarding and punishing. Doling out favor or disfavor. Strikes me as more akin to how a feudal lord would rule than how I would like to see myself acting with students in the classroom.

  2. Hoi Lane,

    note that this one sentence position is something teaching should also be about, it isn’t the only thing. For example, choosing meaningful topics can go a long way, thinking about how to help students understand a topic, etc. But I also think that any teaching is an offer to the students, and given that I work with university students, they are free to decline and chose different courses if they do not find my topics interesting. And when I teach I want my students to learn, and for that, I think that honest feedback and a low tolerance for bullshit are also needed.

    And yes, you could read the sentence as “I am a feudal lord, master of all knowledge, and I graciously give out rewards for those who are subservient”, but this is not meant here. I have no interest in students who excel at licking boots and sucking up, these would be dazzlers for me. Nor do I want students who try to copy me.

    I want students who show autonomy and competence and want to understand. And I think to achieve this, you need to make very clear that the course is not an automatic pass/easy cheat, that licking boots or asking for an easy exam will get you nothing — however, if you want to understand and improve yourself you get help and good grades if you succeed.

    As with any one sentence position, it is easy to interpret differently.

    This said, I would be interested in learning how you see yourself acting with students in the classroom.

    All the best


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