Passion in Professing

June 28, 2012 4 min read

The best professors are passionate. Well, getting too passionate could land you in jail, but great teachers get excited, involved, and agitated about almost every part of the educational process.

I remember when I first started teaching – in a subject matter, Strategy, that was not my PhD field – my department chairman informed that I should use a particular textbook because that was the book that all the professors in the department used. Having no real alternative in mind, I obediently taught from the book. It was a train wreck of a class. 

A great mentor of mine, Walt Ames, took me aside, asked me a bunch of questions, and finally said something like: “You seem to really like the subject matter, but you don’t care about the materials you’re using. Next time you teach, find your own case studies and readings; things that talk to you. Use materials that relate to your life and your point of view, then you’ll be able to add real value in the classroom because you connect to them.” 

The next semester, I learned that materials really do matter. I bonded with my students; they really seemed to be learning something. Largely this was because I had something new and “real world” to say about the cases and the readings because I had chosen pieces that meant something to me. I could be passionate about them. These days, my passion for particular materials wears off after about one use, so every year I try to find brand new materials that relate to things I’m currently doing and thinking. It is a lot of work, but it brings my current world into the classroom.

Content can make you passionate or bore you (and your students) to tears. Early in my career, again, I tried to emulate a good professor of strategy I knew. For him, teaching strategy was all about the numbers. It was how he conducted his corporate consulting and he brought students into his head and his world. I was an organizational behavior PhD teaching strategy. For me the interesting points were things like: How do you get people paying attention to the right things? How does strategy fit into the rest of the stuff going on in an organization in an ongoing way? What are competitors really likely to do when they learn of your company’s new strategy? I LOVE those questions. But you won’t find a textbook or another strategy professor in the world teaching the subject from the perspectives of attention, cyclical change, and war gaming.

I have been so lucky to teach in schools where I’ve been given leeway to teach in my own ways.   A colleague of mine was asked to teach a course in economics at his school. This is a subject area that my colleague—a career consultant—knows a lot about from a practical perspective. He thinks of today’s economics from the perspectives of uncertainty, complexity, and systems. His school insisted that he teach the subject from—his words—“a 1980s/1990s approach.” They would not allow him to update the content to this millennium. But worse still, they would not let him teach from a place of his passion. Ultimately he chose not to teach the course at all rather than try to teach things he fundamentally doesn’t believe; a huge loss to students who could have learned much from him.

Finally, if you are not passionate about your students really learning, I believe you can never be a great teacher. Too often, we professors get caught up in the mechanics of a course. Every year, I watch professors spend hours at the end of a course grading an exam. This is an odious part of the year for everyone involved: professors hate giving and grading exams, and students hate taking them. But there has to be some way of evaluating students, right? 

I decided almost twenty years ago that I needed to create a grading system I could love… and that would really help learning, not just result in “assessment” for me and a lot of rote memorization for students. I moved all the “grading” into the classroom. These days, the students know all the components of their final course grade by our last session together. In many courses I teach, I broadcast individual grades in front of all the students. I figure everyone can learn from the success—or failure—of classmates. By making the grading constant and upfront, students get a chance to iterate on the main points of the class while I’m still around to help. Once “grading” turned into “constant feedback” for me, I found a new raison d’etre in teaching. I’m passionate about the grading portion of the class because it is where I get to see my students’ progress. 

We’ve all had teachers who have been on the job for so long they have lost any spark of passion in the classroom. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you care about your materials, your content, and the real learning of your students—even the grading, I’ve found that even an “old” professor like me can still get excited, involved, and a little agitated in front of every group of new students.