Managing Our Classrooms and Ourselves

by Michael Useem

The content is identical, the main points are the same, and the instructor is still you. Yet student response in one class offering is completely enthused while in another is utterly defused. You know you had great material that the students needed. Why did one class come brilliantly to life and the other fall so flat?

My own experience in both the Wharton School and the School of Arts and Sciences suggests that such differences often stem from the way we manage ourselves and our classroom. If we do it well, our students become engaged and energized; if we don't they become distracted and enervated.

The calling, then, is to devise a learning experience so that our students are attentive and receptive, and here is my five-fold way for mustering attention and reception. It will not be the same as yours, but we all need some management path.

The Classroom

A classroom's size and configuration can be a delight or a disaster. My very first teaching venue on campus was a 10- x 75-foot, dimly lit "classroom" (actually, a library). Construction-site jack-hammers just outside the building ensured that most of my 60 students could hear about as well as they could see in what amounted to a shadowy tunnel without blackboard or projector. My present classroom seats 60 students in tiered semi-circular rows around a brilliantly lit center brimming with visual technologies. The first act of classroom management, then, is to negotiate where we practice our trade.

Unfortunately, a dozen things can still go wrong in the best of venues: lights expire, seats break, erasers disappear, computers balk, thermostats malfunction. Even with inspections of classrooms that are now routine, it is always a good idea to arrive early to make sure everything you need is in order.

Once class starts our management role is by no means completed. We still have to overcome student aversion to all front rows and affection for the back. We still have to ensure that leaf blowers do not appear outside our windows, overhead projectors do not spark out, and late arrivers do not disrupt our first act.

The Handout

Students expect and deserve a paper record at the outset that captures all that you will say and show. You may post it on the web for later browsing, but it is the paper on which notes are taken and thoughts stored.

The handout contains the transparencies and graphics that you plan to display, and then some. It is a menu of what you plan to do; a hook to the last class topic and link to the next; a record of assignment changes and quality-circle directives; a summary of the day's readings and a compendium of the photos, equations, derivations, figures, tables, and narratives that carry the day's content.

The Relationship

In researching corporations, I am frequently awed by how many executives personally know the five hundred top people in the firm. Though our student encounters are far briefer, learning the names and mastering their identities early in the term is absolutely critical, even if their numbers are daunting.

Face cards help. You can create these from the class lists with pictures that are now available to most instructors on the web. If unavailable, ask your students to fill out an index card with memorable data ranging from their major and nickname to favorite sport and vital fact (one reported that her dog and cat thought they were people). Add student photographs, and you are set for cold calling in the classroom and warm encounters outside it.

During the present semester, I face a combined 326 students in four courses, and by mid-term I've managed to master most of the names, especially if I review the face cards early on every teaching day. But my storage system is fragile, and my biggest fear now is that I hit a killer pothole on driving to campus and scores of names are knocked free.

The Presentation

Stage actors and opera singers face their audience, and lighting crews ensure they can be seen. But too often we have witnessed seminar speakers look at anything except the audience, or even turn their back on the audience. Worse, we sometimes see them fail to fully light the seminar room or even dim the lights in the name of accenting a slide, leaving their voice to emanate from a twilight zone at the front of the room.

The list of self-management "do's" and "don'ts" is long here: Stand upright and don't pace around; speak forcefully and avoid those "ahs"; act with confidence and don't guess at what you're not confident of. Leave all those annoying personal habits at the door.

A fast-moving, crisply delivered, and content-full presentation with counterintuitive conclusions is essential. Unappealing and unclear presentations are catastrophic.

Demeanor and appearance are no small part of the package. One of my colleagues wears a different tee shirt to every class session, the images becoming more astonishing at the term progresses. I'm not a tee-shirt person, but I do make a point to vary my attire from L.L. Bean to Brooks Brothers. Get out those Land's End and Nordstrom catalogs.

Diversity in teaching style is equally important. Your main method may be that of the talking head, but break it up with illustrative videos, student presentations, engaging exercises, and surprise speakers. Disappearing chalk and other tricks of the magician's trade can help if all else fails.

The End

When classtime is out, you're out. Going even a minute beyond the prescribed end tells students you're abysmal at managing your time and theirs. Put differently, a sure way to kill your ratings is consistently to take five minutes of the precious time in which your students planned to find a restroom or snack on their hurried way to the next class.

Returning term papers, problems sets, and other graded things in as short a time as attainable with as extensive feedback as feasible provides students with as much guidance as possible.

Summarizing your main points early and often keeps students on track during the term. Doing that more fully at the end of class also assures that they leave the classroom knowing why they came. Watch the clock: You can't do the recap justice in the final minute.

And that's where we are now, close to the word limit the editor granted me. The main point, then, is to ensure our teaching experience maximizes what students master during their brief moments with us. Managing the classroom, the handout, the relationship, the presentation, and the end will do it for you--and for them.

This is the third essay in the 1998-99 Talk About Teaching series, now in its fifth year as a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

Dr. Useem is Professor of Management in the Wharton School and author of The Leadership Moment: Nine True Stories of Triumph and Disaster and Their Lessons for Us All (1998).

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 14, December 8, 1998