On the first day of class in every course I tell students that my job is to help them succeed in law school. I doubt that my students remember this, especially my 1Ls who are hearing all sorts of new things from their teachers and fellow students during the beginning of their legal education. So I remind students several times during the course that my obligations as a teacher include helping students succeed.
The last time I told students about my view of my job, I began reflecting on my statement. To begin, I admitted to myself that much of my job is not tied directly to helping my students succeed. Like many legal academics, my job includes teaching, service, and scholarship. Although I think that some aspects of my service and scholarship benefit students, only the teaching portion of my job has student success as a primary goal.
Then I began to think more deeply about what it means to say that my job is to help students succeed in law school. I recognize that what constitutes “success” varies tremendously among my students. For some, success means that they avoid academic dismissal and eventually graduate from my law school. For others it means that they perform at a very high level and create many options for themselves upon graduation. Some students define success in law school by their intense and varied “hands on” experiences that they hope will prepare them for the practice of law. And other students are driven by the opportunity to use their legal learning to help people in need during and after law school. And so on…
Finally, I started reflecting on what behaviors and attitudes on my part could help students succeed. I will continue to contemplate this, but here are some initial thoughts.
Learning Environment. I can play a significant role is creating a class environment conducive to learning for all students. How? By fostering three-way respect: Teacher to Student, Student to Teacher, and Student to Student. By learning students names and something about their lives. By my expectations – they should be high, yet achievable, for every student, and for myself. By making joy and celebration part of the educational experience.
Practice and Feedback. I ask my students to learn difficult doctrine, theory, skills, and professional values. Practice and feedback are critical for that learning. So I should provide students with multiple opportunities for practice and feedback, both graded and ungraded. Providing feedback to students during the course takes a significant portion of my “teaching” time. It takes place in the classroom with large groups of students and outside of the classroom with small groups and individuals. Perhaps the most valuable use of my time during my 1L course is meeting with students to provide feedback on the graded midterm exam. It provides me with an opportunity to reinforce each student’s strengths and troubleshoot their weaknesses.
Good Faith Assumption. I try to operate as a teacher with the assumption that there is a good faith explanation for my students’ behavior. Whenever I fail to do so, my students remind me of the importance of the good faith assumption. I have many examples of my falling off of the good faith assumption wagon. Here is one from this semester. A student identified herself to me on the first day of class as “very high maintenance” (her words) requiring lots of reassurance from her teachers. Several weeks later we had a poor interaction when she interrupted my conversation with another student to ask a question. A couple weeks after that, I noticed that she appeared very unhappy and distracted in class – never smiling, rarely even looking at me. I began to obsess about her poor attitude in my class. She hated me – it was obvious. Finally I asked her after class whether she was OK because I had noticed that she seemed unhappy and distracted in class. She told me that her parents had decided to separate and her high school aged siblings were taking the news very hard. She was doing her best to help her parents and siblings get through a very tough time. Her “presence” both in and out of class have continued to improve since our conversation. Or perhaps her “presence” was fine all along and it was only my attitude that needed adjustment…
I can’t succeed for them. I can strive to create an effective teaching/learning environment. I can provide opportunities for practice and feedback. I can operate according to the good faith assumption. But only my students can do what it takes to succeed. I can support them, believe in them, challenge them, but I cannot learn doctrine, theory, skills, and values for them. At the end of the day, my obligation to help students succeed in law school is not the key to my students’ success. There is no substitute for the passion, diligence, intelligence, compassion, and judgment that students must find in themselves.