In this issue

It's not about you, it's about the shark!

When professors let go of their egos, it makes everything a little easier in class and in life.

By Michael Clayton, PhD

It always seems to surprise students when they lea rn that their professors do not receive education or training in the art of teaching on the way to their advanced degrees. We become familiar with some small part of our field, and then we start teaching. The process can be daunting. For example, we spend many years in a lab learning everything we can about human language, memory or human development, but that does not necessarily mean that we are ready to teach general psychology to 18- and 19-year-old college freshmen. There is the material itself, but there also is the job of managing a classroom. The obstacles and challenges to a successful classroom experience are many. For example, incorporating technology into the classroom, getting and maintaining the students' attention, respectful discourse during class, staying up to date with the field and textbook and navigating the many motivations of your students are but a few.

Just like in all of lif e, there are proximate causes for the difficulties we all face in the classroom, as well as ultimate causes (Alessi, 1992). Proximate causes may include a poorly structured syllabus, difficult subject matter, the time of day a course meets or even a single exceptionally challenging student. All of the little things that can make or break a class are important, but ultimately not sufficient as causes. I've spent many hours addressing every little problem over the years, but there are always more, and the game can begin to resemble a "whack-a-mole" competition. For example, as soon as I think I've built the perfect syllabus, I find that my slides are out of date and the textbook has gone through significant revisions.

Therefore, I have found some peace and relative success by focusing more on ultimate causes. One of the most relevant of which is ego. I have found over time that ego can make or break anyone no matter how many revisions we make to our materials or how much multimedia we incorporate into the classroom.

In psychological terms, the ego is the part of the psyche that experiences the outside world and reacts to it. It is our conscious experience of ourselves (Freud, 1961).

In general, I have found that professors tend to have pretty well-developed egos. We were probably the student in second grade who always raised a hand and luxuriated in the teacher's praise. We went on to develop good relationships with our professors and score well on the GRE. We then found ourselves in graduate programs surround ed by oth ers more like us, where we proceeded to learn everything we could about a small area of our chosen field. The dissertation process itself requires an extreme narrowing of focus. When you focus that intensely on such a small question, it necessarily limits how much experience you can have of the usually much broader field. In this respect, some well-deserved humility in the classroom has served me well. When too much of your ego is dependent on your classroom performance and the reactions of students, you are on thin ice, indeed.

I have worked with professors who got angry when students asked questions in class because they felt that the student was challenging their authority or mastery of everything. That's silly. They are just asking questions. You can even learn something from them sometimes. Professors will demand that students promptly attend every lecture, and they will tell themselves that it is what is best for the students, but I suspect it is at least partially what is best for the professor. After all, if I am that brilliant with that much wisdom to impart, how could they possibly want to miss a moment of my time?

My first job was as a one-year visiting professor position on a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I was tasked with teaching all of the courses that the other faculty did not like to teach, so I was assigned courses that I did not like and had no particular expertise in, but had to teach anyway. Occasionally, a gecko would walk across the ceiling while I was teaching or a cockroach would skitter past my feet. I think that all of those experiences served to keep my ego in check. It did not go without a fight (the fight lasted for several more years and jobs), but once I let go, it became easier to negotiate the classroom experience.

As a new professor, I much wanted all of the students to attend my courses, but battles with student attendance brought diminishing returns. I remember the day I let that particular battle go, and it involved a shark of all things. One of my favorite students came to me and said that she would not be attending my class that afternoon. I immediately felt uncomfortable, angry and vaguely wounded. Somehow I had misjudged the student's motivation and interest. I was not expecting it, but when she told me her reason, I suddenly let all those feelings go. She proceeded to tell me that there was a hammerhead shark inside the reef on the western side of the island and she wanted to see if she could swim with it. I had no readily available response to that excuse. I think the striking vividness of her story made me realize that it was not about me or my class. It was about her and the shark.

From then on, I have not required attendance and do not take it personally when the students tell me that their grandmother is sick or their car broke down. I just think about that girl and the shark.

I have observed professor-student battles over cell phones in the classroom that escalated to legally questionable confiscation of the student's phone and heated discussions about whether a student's tone was disrespectful or not. I have had colleagues that will not tolerate chewing gum, cologne/perfume or pen-clicking in class. One colleague was fond of mercilessly insulting and mocking anyone who walked into class late. I understand the fear that makes people react in those ways, but it is ultimately unproductive behavior.

I simply request that anyone who arrives late or leaves early for some reason do so respectfully. This is something I learned from Sean Penn's Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (“I've been thinking about this, Mr. Hand. If I'm here and you're here, doesn't that make it our time?”). It's not my classroom so much as our classroom, and the weight of that tends to minimize problems. The student is not just being disrespectful to me, but to all of their classmates. Never underestimate the power of social pressure.

When you let go of your ego, it makes everything a little easier in class and in life. When students are texting or staring out the window, it's about them and not about me. If they do not turn in their assignment, it is not that they are challenging my authority or that they are "dummies." They all have many different lives and motivations, or even sharks. I simply do my best to present the material as thoroughly and engagingly as I can. I expect everyone to be respectful to each other, the classroom, course material and me. I am clear about what they need to do to get their desired grade, and I do not ask for reasons why they do or do not do something in class. As long as they understand the syllabus and do the work, they should have the freedom to swim with a shark, too.

Michael Clayton, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Missouri State University and a board-certified behavior analyst.


Alessi, G. (1992). Models of proximate and ultimate causation in psychology. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1359-1370.

Freud, S. (1961). The ego and the id. New York: W. W. Norton.