I’ve been going to school since I was four years old. In those 30+ years, I’ve been the student of some very good teachers and some very bad teachers. The good teachers were good teachers not because they let me get away with not doing a homework or gave me extra credit on an exam. On the contrary, the good teachers were the taskmasters who always kept on top of things with me and encouraged me to do better when I got a bad grade. They saw it as a failure in their teaching when we didn’t get good grades or when one of us failed.
The bad teachers couldn’t care less.
I didn’t encounter the bad teachers until I was in college. They were the ones who lectured to an auditorium and were completely unavailable for questions before, during, and after lectures. The only questions we could ask would be to the teaching assistants, and, many times, we didn’t get a straight answer. Other times, they were so uninterested in teaching that their classes were boring re-readings of their powerpoint slides. I felt like I was wasting their time, and they acted like I was wasting their time when I asked questions.
Once in grad school for my master of public health degree, I encountered a couple of good teachers. Oddly enough, one was the assistant dean. His classes were very interactive. He used the Socratic Method in his classes, always asking questions when we gave him answers. (Not everyone liked this, by the way.) One of the things that stuck the most from his classes was something he asked in a discussion on universal health insurance. He asked, “What if there isn’t a solution? What if we never have universal coverage?” This was five years before “Obamacare,” and it was a very pertinent question to ask. Everyone in class wanted to dream up a way to have everyone in the US covered for all of their healthcare needs. After he asked that, my perspective changed to one of “good enough,” when it came to the issue. The concept of “perfection” disappeared.
Another teacher was the biostats professor I had for my MPH. He made it a point to describe every concept in words, in numbers, and then again in drawings. By doing that, he made sure that we all learned the concepts in our own way. Sure, he would go on to co-author an anti-vaccine paper that was widely (and rightfully) criticized, but he was a good teacher. His method taught me the basics of biostatistics. Without those basics, I would have been more than lost when I started the DrPH program. However, it was because of the other teachers during the MPH program that I learned epidemiology on the fly at work at the health department. It was because of the other teachers that I was lost when I started the DrPH.
Even now at the most prestigious school of public health in the world, I encounter one bad teacher after another. Rarely do I find a professor that makes it a point to teach and make sure the students learned. In some instances, I can understand that it would be impossible for them to have a vested interest in each one of us. One class, biostats for public health, was taught in an auditorium. Although the professor is very good at teaching, and she is a genuinely nice person, she doesn’t have the time to teach us all in our own way. As someone who sees equations as blobs of letters and numbers, I was very lost in her class. It took a good friend and some drawings for me to understand the concepts better.
A few friends on Facebook — and my brother, who is in the academic field — suggested that many of the professors in colleges and universities are more focused on research (and the grant money that comes with said research) and on publishing their research as they move toward tenure. I believe them. Far too many times, inexperienced teaching assistants have taken over classes because the professor is too busy with some aspect of their research. When that happens, I believe that neither the TA nor the students are well served.
So what do you do? The way the system is set up has brilliant professors teaching at top-notch universities but also has them doing research. The universities pull in a lot of money from research grants. So that research needs to go on and on and on. It goes on to the point that some professors, especially those on tenure, completely forgo teaching and focus on their research, leaving their teaching assistants with the task of reading off the slides. I don’t think we can divorce teaching — which pulls in money in the form of tuition — from research.
In the courses that I’ve TA-ed, I’ve tried to focus more on the teaching aspect and less on all the other stuff. As professors have given me independence to deal with the class (because they’re busy doing something else), I’ve tried to make sure that the students are learning the concepts, not just memorizing facts and figures that they can regurgitate back at me in a split second. The question is less “What’s 2+2?” and more “Why is 2+2 equal to 4 and not equal to 6?” (The second question is harder to answer, isn’t it?)
Although I’m not planning on being a professor in the future, I do plan on at one point or another instructing people. Maybe I’ll lecture on epidemiology. Or maybe I’ll teach the finer points of the Mexican Soccer League. Either way, I don’t want to be like some of the bad professors I’ve encountered, and I definitely don’t want to lead anyone astray.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
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