A letter in the mail

Master lessons from a humble professor

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It was from a veteran professor who led a session at a teaching workshop that I attended a few weeks ago.

I didn’t know this until I later Googled him, but he’s a model teacher. Students adore him. He has a 4.8 out of 5 rating on RateMyProfessors.com, where students leave comments like the following:

Skipping class won’t be an option. Not because he has a strict attendance policy, but because you won’t want to miss one moment of his class. By far my favorite professor.

Best professor I had.

More than a teacher, he is a mentor, a guide for the subject and, more than that, he teaches you about life.

Those are just a few of the glowing praises.

I didn’t know any of this about him when I heard him tell his own story and then lead us in an activity on “inquiry-based learning.” I just knew he opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about teaching.

Weeks later the stories he told and the nuggets of wisdom stuck with me. I turned them over in my brain and used them as I put together lessons.

I took me a while, but I finally sent a thank you card telling him how valuable his expertise was to me.

Then this morning I got his letter in the mail, which I wasn’t expecting.

He told me he was glad I took something away from his presentation, especially because he thought the talk “didn’t come off well.” He said his mistake was trying to fit too much into one lesson, which he called a rookie error.

I was amazed that he has been teaching for more than 33 years with mountains of accolades — including the Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence — and he’s still finding ways to critique and improve his work.

For the last week, I was dreading today. I was scheduled to guest lecture in a history class, and had my own media writing class after that.

I had plans in place for both classes, but it didn’t feel quite right. My gut was telling me that something was off.

And then I got this note, and it clicked in my mind. I was trying to do too much, too soon. It was too high concept, especially for where students are right now in the new semester. I needed to refocus my message and get back to the goals.

I went to my slides and I started deleting. I took out an entire activity and started from scratch. The new material then seemed to flow out of me.

After that, the pit in my stomach disappeared. Both classes went fantastic.

I should write him another letter and let him know.

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