It was the last day of my Media and Journalism class and the last day of the spring semester. My brain was finished for the year. I just wanted to go back to bed. Busy trying to keep my eyes open, I barely noticed my professor (let’s call him M) moving around the room handing something to each student. I only woke up when he placed a small envelope, my name scrawled across it in his messy cursive, in front of me. I managed to open it without ripping the innocent envelope to shreds like I normally do. Inside was a short letter in more of Professor M’s handwriting.
It was a farewell letter, thanking me for participating in M’s class.
I won’t recite that letter verbatim, both for M’s privacy and my own, but I will tell you that it made a huge impact on me. It told me that M knew me as a person and that he paid attention to what I told him about my goals. It gave me praise and encouragement, both as a student and as a person moving into the grown-up world.
That letter was a great example of M’s work as a professor and how it changed my understanding of my professors and my college experience. He taught me what makes a good professor and how to recognize those qualities. He made me think about how to create good relationships with my professors. Most of all, he made me think about how to find a source of strength for college and life in those relationships.
A good professor can be lifesaving, and students need to know how to find the best ones. M is my model for how to recognize a great professor when I see one.
One of the traits he had, and that I now look for in other teachers, is concern for individuals. M took care to remember what his students told him about themselves—in a questionnaire he handed out at the start of the year, I mentioned that I am a writer and a science fiction fan.
The next day M began a conversation with me about author Ursula K. LeGuin. In his farewell letter several months later, he encouraged me to write the stories I wanted to, not what others tried to make me write. The other students in his class received equally personalized letters. M actually cared about his students as people. That made me feel unusually comfortable and supported.
Another quality of M’s that I search for in other professors is academic conscientiousness. M’s class was quite large, naturally limiting his time to focus on each student. I always got grades back quickly, though, and I knew M fully reviewed my work. He marked every flaw and suggested ways to improve alongside every mistake. M also answered every question he received, no matter how much of his time it took up. Like his personal knowledge of his students, M’s schoolwork style let me know that he had my back. And in college, that’s priceless.
In both interactions and academics, M went several miles beyond what his position required him to do for his students. To me, that quality more than any other has become the mark of a good professor.
If you find a teacher who blows right past requirements or expectations, grab a seat in their class and don’t let go.
M taught me something else that is just as important as recognizing a good professor: how to build and keep good relationships with professors. A good starting point for a quality relationship with your professor involves learning about their life. M cared about his students’ lives, and so we cared about what happened to him and what he did.
I (and I think the whole class) felt closer to M and respected him more when we heard his comments and stories about his life, whether he mentioned the newspapers he had worked for, the events he covered as a journalist or just a funny thing that happened the day before. Talking with professors about their lives (with politeness and sensible boundaries, of course) shows that you respect them personally and care about them.
Another student-professor relationship tip from M’s class is the importance of volunteering. When M’s kid was sick and needed him to stay home, he decided to hold class by Skype. We students offered our phones and laptops for him to call. We all cooperated with moving our seats and raising our voices so M could see and hear his class.
In other words, we volunteered to meet M’s needs. M made sure to thank us all, and I believe he trusted us more after that. Professors will see offering to help them or make their lives easier (again, with reasonable boundaries) as a marker of decency and trustworthiness.
Finally, hold on to your professors’ contact information. Let them know that you would like to stay in contact (so you don’t inadvertently become a stalker). Try to talk to them often enough to keep your relationship active. Let them know if your academic and professional accomplishments.
I still have M’s email, as well as the emails of my other favorite professors, and I try to check on them and have lunch or coffee occasionally. Maintaining this connection is mostly my responsibility (although M did reach out to his former students to make sure they were safe during Hurricane Florence). It’s a responsibility I enjoy.
Identifying and bonding with a specimen of the Excellent College Professor (bene rarus professorius) can be hard, but it’s one of the most valuable and enjoyable things I’ve done in college.
Some of the benefits are obvious. A good professor makes the class more enjoyable, your life easier and your grades better. Befriending and keeping up with that professor sets you up to get their advice on college and careers. And you may even get a job with them or through their contacts.
But more subtle reasons should encourage you to get to know your professors. Some of the best and most supportive friends I’ve made in college have been my professors. I’m still growing up, and for the little-kid part of me, it’s comforting to know my teachers like me and will help me out. For the nerdy adult part of me, it’s great to know people who show me it’s possible to make a living and find fulfillment as intellectuals.
And whatever my age, it’s just plain awesome to have friends like M at school and in life.