How to Have a Great Class: Kindness and Fairness

There are a lot of factors in making a great class: a good time of the day, a good mix of student leaders in the class, a comfortable room, and good texts to use. Sometimes there are factors you simply cannot control: the students in your class are tired due to their schedules, or the room just doesn’t work for the number of students you have, or the technology fails you. I’ve had 8 AM classes that worked well because most of the students were athletes who had early morning practices and were ready for class; other 8 AM classes lacked morning people and were lackluster. If your 11 AM class is the third class of the day, then you are in trouble. These are things we, as teachers, have no control over.

There are, however, a few things you can control. Students are deeply attuned to fairness (isn’t everybody?). If they feel you are being unfair to some, or to them, then they will be unhappy. If the class feels unplanned, has unclear deadlines that change, or goes over the stated ending of class, then students will be unhappy. Holding to the ending time of class (and hopefully beginning of class), taking attendance, and being clear on deadlines are easy ways to be fair. Students want you to be fair and open about what the class is, what the expectations are, and what is going on.

Coupled with being fair is the importance of being kind. There are all sorts of situations where one must be kind: students may have car trouble, face family problems, or simply be having a bad day. Some students are terrified of speaking in class. These are times for one to be kind, while still fair, and I find that students respond well when they sense you are struggling to be both fair and kind.

An important way to be kind is to listen to students. When they raise a question or challenge, or attempt to answer a question, listening to them and responding kindly but thoughtfully is vital. Do you dismiss their comments in favor of your outline for the day, or your prescribed answer? Or do you follow up their contribution with an affirmation and a good response? Taking them seriously, as thinking adults, is key to having success in the classroom. No one wants to be ignored. This also applies to their essays and writing; we must thoughtfully and kindly respond to their work, pointing to what is done well and what can be done better, but always in a spirit of gentle, fair kindness. The teacher is there to convince the students that the material is vitally important, but also to remind them that it is, after all, just a class, and some things may actually be more important than that particular assignment or class.

Balancing your expectations for the day, fairness, and kindness are always a challenge. But the classroom is the main place where a teacher can do good work for one’s students. Being unprepared, unresponsive, or humorless are ways to harm the classroom, which is a time when you can achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. Students will remember, most of all, those moments in the classroom when you listened and challenged them, and they learned something. They will best learn when the atmosphere, both inside and outside the classroom, is fair and kind.

Preaching versus Teaching

I’ve had experience both in teaching on a collegiate level and preaching regularly in a local church, and I’ve been giving some thought to how they are similar yet different.

Both teaching and preaching involve public speaking on a deadline; both are grueling in that one is constantly either preparing or delivering a bit of oratory. The comparison is not to a writer but to an op-ed journalist, as you are constantly having to be creative on a topic while meeting a deadline. Church, classroom, newspaper – these places wait for no one.

In many ways, preaching is teaching, especially in a time when people are fairly Biblically and religiously illiterate, yet current preaching must also be relevant and with a bit of entertainment as well – otherwise, people will not pay attention to the teaching! Teaching, of course, must also use the tools of entertainment and humor to keep students engaged.

But the character of worship makes preaching quite different from teaching. The music, prayers, and sense of God’s presence garbs preaching differently; now it has gravitas. The classroom is hopefully interactional and even meandering as ideas are explored, challenged, and reformulated, but the sermon is more focused and constructed (although it should be limber as well so not too wooden). Christian preaching is also different in that has an ultimate criterion, which is the Bible, while the classroom does not have a canonical basis (beyond clear readings of any given text). The feel of preaching is also vastly different as it relates to God in an intimate way.

Preaching hopes to tell people what they must do. Giving the practical implications of a text for one’s life is quite different from teaching in the humanities, which doesn’t so much tell people what to think but how to think. Teaching hopes to expose young minds to other possibilities so they can form their own positions and analyses, while preaching hopefully conveying a concrete way we should respond (while also, at times, exploring possibilities as teaching does).

All of that said, I have found that teaching has improved my preaching. Having to prepare for class some 12 times a week has helped me prepare for the pulpit, as well as given me more confidence (practice makes perfect!).

Thoughts on the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch is really, really great. I’ve come to really appreciate it, although it does take time (ha ha).

Like many people, I had abandoned a watch 8 years ago or so, as the cell phone was so handy for checking the time. A watch seemed redundant, especially after mine had stopped working. But about two years ago, I did buy a new watch. I was tired of having to find my iPhone to check the time; the glance at your wrist was much simpler and direct. The fashion aspect was nice as well, as watch people do notice watches.

The Apple Watch seems like such an evolution with its a pairing of the smart phone and the watch. It takes the simple idea of time and date and then expands it to greater capabilities, especially with weather and health. Although, as John Gruber has noted, the ability to actually see the time is somewhat diminished with the screen going dark (I still have issues of “flicking my wrist” to see the time and the Apple Watch not waking properly). An old-fashioned watch is always on and never darkens to save battery life, but it feels like such a step backwards that going back to a non-smart watch is not worth it. That’s how great the Apple Watch is.

The Apple Watch apps are not that great, mostly because of their pokey sluggishness. They can take forever to launch, when defeats the whole point of the Apple Watch; if I can get my iPhone in hand to do something faster than the Watch app loads, then it’s a loss. Thinking about it as something like a smartphone is completely wrong; it’s not a small iPhone but something quite different, and the apps are going to be very different as well. WatchOS 2 will make things interesting, as natives will run natively.

Apple Pay is good fun, but as someone who lives in a rural US county, I’ve only got McDonald’s and Walgreens as places to use it. I did have a great early adopter moment when I paid for something at McDonald’s at the first window with my Apple Watch, and when I pulled to the second window the employee had already heard about it (“Oh my gosh! I just heard you paid with your watch! That is so crazy!”).

 What is great with the Watch is the screen itself with its complications. I really like seeing my next calendar event and the current temperature, all the time. Yet the killer feature for the Apple Watch, surprisingly, is the fitness monitoring. I used to wear a Fitbit One, and it was a great little device (although the sleep wristband broke pretty quickly) but it had a major barrier: to check your steps, you had to either fumble for it or launch the smartphone app and wait for the sync. What should have been a constant and easy monitoring/reminding ended up being pretty inefficient. By the time I thought to check my steps, it was 9 PM and too late for me. Like backups, this sort of information needs to happen behind the scenes.

With the ingenious fitness tracking circles constantly available on the Apple Watch face, you have a constant visual check on your day, and you can note where you are midday and do something about it much more easily. Other trackers have this capability, of course, but to combine it with a watch is a real win (some other trackers did the opposite, having a fitness tracker with watch ability, as with the Fitbit Charge and Surge, Microsoft Band, or Nike Fuelband). Plus, Apple is now in the game theory world, since we all love getting goofy awards and seeing a row of achievements. I was mildly crushed the other day when, after 6 days of hitting my target fitness goal, I missed the next day. Big frown! The power of game theory also means I don’t wear my other watches, since I want my steps counted. The Apple Watch has a constant reason for you to wear it, if you are monitoring the fitness tracking; who wants to lose for a day, after all?

Apple’s use of calories as the common currency for activity monitoring is clever. I understand there are different kinds of calories and calorie burning, but it still gives a simple fungible category between exercise and nutrition (the opposite approach to the Nike Fuel Band, which had a bizarre proprietary number for fitness activity). When you see how long it takes you on the elliptical to burn through that Butterfinger candy bar, it means something.

The notifications are nice as well, although I think it needs more granularity. I don’t want all of my texts on my wrist, after all. The answer to technological efficiencies is not to make them more ubiquitous but to use them for filtering. A constantly buzzing wrist will not help you any with your constantly buzzing smartphone.

There are some areas for improvement. I found that the Apple Watch becomes rather useless when you are somewhere without cell phone signal; it actually panics and goes to the wrong time zone, as the iPhone can do as well. I was surprised that you don’t get credit for steps taken without the Watch on but with your iPhone; it seems like there should be some mutual syncing going on. Additionally, as a lap swimmer, there is no way to record my workouts. I can see how the current system of the Watch only records what it actually measures  is simpler (and you can’t cheat!), but it’s also rather unfair. What is odd is the power of game theory, as I’m tending towards the elliptical machine some days precisely because I want the exercise recorded.

People are very aware of this device, and strangers often ask me if it’s an Apple Watch. This alone is a sign of Apple’s terrific successes in the last decade as a company that makes beloved products that, despite being cold slabs of glass and metal technology, still find a strange intimacy in our lives. The Apple Watch is a real win, and considering that Apple has found a way to innovate a new device in a wildly successful iPhone era, it is a startling achievement.