January 12, 2017 2:32 pm

Norman Eng

You know that feeling when someone embarrasses you? Or when you get shut down?

Student do.

They know when professors respond sarcastically. Or trivialize their responses. It makes students feel dumb, embarrassed. They learn to stop participating, real fast.

It’s not your fault they’re skeptical on the first day of class.

Your job is to change that. Create a “safe, psychological space.” (Yes, that’s a thing.) This is the secret to engaging students.

You want them feeling so comfortable—so safe—they’ll admit things they only admit to their friends. Last year one of my students actually confessed—out loud—she never reads in other classes.

For me, however, she did. I felt honored.

Not because I have such low expectations, but because she felt comfortable enough to be real. It also reveals a simple truth in students’ lives–if you’re willing to listen: most readings just aren’t useful (that’s an issue for another post).

So, how do you overcome their initial skepticism? Here are two tips to start:

Tip #1: Forget academics the first day—just get to know your students.

I ask them: 1) What would make this course useful? And 2) What are your biggest concerns/questions on the first day of class?

Unlike professors, marketers and sellers and great at asking these questions. They know what customers like, what they fear, and what frustrates them. Why else would they buy that home security system or that weight loss book?

Professors, on the other hand, rarely ever think that way. They’re more concerned with, What should I teach? Students aren’t sold. They’re still skeptical.

One way I overcome initial skepticism is by playing the “Name Game.” Students go around the room introducing themselves, by stating their first name along with a descriptor that starts with the same letter as their name: “Hi, I’m Diana and I was born in December.”

The challenge? Each person afterwards must repeat the name(s)/description(s) of everyone that came before: “Her name is Diana and she was born in December. My name is Omar and I like to eat oranges.”

You can guess that the last student to go has the hardest job. Make the game more fair by telling students you, as the teacher, are going last. It will force you to learn names, which is one of the best ways to build a teacher-student connection.

Tip #2: Be real.

Tell students the industry like it is, warts and all. Chef Anthony Bourdain became popular because his book, Kitchen Confidential, gave an unvarnished look at the restaurant industry from an insider’s perspective. Like the fact that the bread you eat before ordering is actually recycled from other people’s tables.

You want to be the Anthony Bourdain of teaching. That’s not to say you don’t show passion about your discipline. Just stop being so diplomatic. Just be real.

To summarize, keeping it real and getting to know students the first day are two tips that will break down students’ initial skepticism. Once it does, your class dynamic will change. Start this tomorrow.

  • I love this and have actually done this activity on my class-the Name Game!! Getting to know your students and “being real” is the key for a successful year! I teach High Schoolers and letting them know that you “genuinely” care is another thing that will get them to open up in class!!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Rhona. I’ve done the name game many times, and you’re right – being real is about building relationships. Sometimes students see the teacher-student dynamic as being naturally oppositional or adversarial.

  • I agree we need to establish a safe environment from the start. In my high school classes, we discussed what a safe environment looked like, sounded like, and felt like. Students were relieved— and the discussion helped to show I cared about students’ feelings.
    I do believe the name game is good, depending on classroom sizes. But many students may have experienced this technique in other classes. So it would be helpful to learn other “ice-breakers.”
    Student know when you really care about them.

  • I love this idea. The first week of school I only do “fun” things. I make them laugh, laugh at myself, and a just talk. I really feel this helps the students a lot too. Thanks Norman. Great content

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