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Teaching Students and Managing Subordinates August 29, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership.
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Last week I finished teaching a class in project management at a local university. I’ve always planned to spend my time teaching as an adjunct professor after “retirement,” and this extended period of involuntary unemployment has given me the chance to pursue that plan a little earlier. It was a small class, only ten students. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I think I did a pretty good job passing on some knowledge and maybe inspiring some of the students. I’m looking forward to teaching this class again sometime soon.

While reviewing the homework assignments and papers to prepare the final grades I’ve been thinking about the different kinds of students in the class and how they remind me of some of the different employees I used to manage.

1. The “literalists” are the students who really internalize the grading rubric and do exactly what was assigned, no more and no less. For example, this is a class that requires participation in on-line discussion threads between the classroom sessions, and the students are graded according to how often they post, including posting early in the week (instead of posting several times in one day). This is to encourage actual discussion among the students. The literalists do the minimum required number of posts, but miss the point about engaging with other students. They’re like the employees who want to know how their job performance will be measured, including what it looks like when they “exceed expectations,” but fail to understand how their performance fits into the larger picture. They don’t have the inner drive to learn more or contribute more, and they’re unlikely to exercise leadership, unless it’s something they’re going to be “graded on.” In class, they’ll get a good grade, but I wonder how valuable they’re going to be to their future employer.

2. On the other hand, the “generalists” seem to have a deeper understanding of the material, ask questions in class, and engage in the discussions, but don’t always turn in the homework, or turn it in late. They’re not going to get the best grade if I follow the strict guidelines of the grading rubric. They remind me of the rare employees who aren’t thinking only about how they’re going to do on their next performance review. Maybe they don’t care about external rewards like salary increases. They may be motivated by a desire to learn and grow and master new skills. These are the folks I used to really enjoy working with because they tended to take a longer view that was less self-centered. They could be inspired to take on more challenging assignments, including leadership positions.

3. The “strugglers” are the students who are really trying, but just can’t seem to get it. They turn in the work, participate in the classroom, make mistakes, sometimes get frustrated, and appreciate any help they can get. I like them because they try, and I look for ways to give them extra points for the effort. They’re not going to become project managers. This isn’t the right class for them, but they’re going to get through it, and I hope they find a different class or focus area that will be a better use of their talents and skills. I’ve managed people like that who are in the wrong job. Sometimes the organization can accommodate a change in responsibilities that will help these people shine, and if they can they’ll get a lot more out of these folks.

4. Finally, there are the “slackers” who don’t always show up for class, don’t always turn in the homework, don’t participate in class discussions, and generally aren’t engaged at all. They may or may not be aware of the fact that they’re not going to pass the class, and they may or may not care. When they get negative feedback and written warnings that they’re headed for a failing grade, there’s no response. I can’t “fire” these students, and there’s a limit to how much effort I’m willing to put into improving their performance. It doesn’t work if I care more about how a student is doing than they do. As with the strugglers, they will eventually move on to other things, but will they find something that inspires them? Do they have skills and inner drive, and what will it take to draw them out?

Anyway, as I said, these are some of my observations and comparisons. The classroom is a different environment than the workplace, and it’s unlikely that I’ll see any of these students again. The grade they get from this class or any other is not necessarily a reflection of how well they’ll do after they graduate or otherwise leave the university.

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