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Teaching isn’t a popularity contest

Constructiworkers place new sign rooftop Roosevelt University's new 32-story 'vertical campus' July 2011.  |  Sun-Times Media

Construction workers place a new sign on the rooftop of Roosevelt University's new 32-story "vertical campus" in July 2011. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 12, 2012 11:53AM

I stood in front of my students at Roosevelt University this week, clutching an envelope and asking for a student volunteer before making my exit so they could grade me as their professor without fear of retribution.

I carefully read the teacher instructions, urging my journalism class to be candid in their midterm evaluations, adding, “I don’t care if you like me.”

“What? You don’t care if we like you?” one student asked with a chuckle.

That wasn’t exactly true.

“I don’t mean it like that,” I said, laughing.

The point was that they should be honest in assessing my teaching — and the class — so that both might be amended or improved. The point was that I think sometimes teachers care way too much about being chums with, or favorites of, their students rather than simply teaching and giving their best, whether loved or hated by students.

This much I also believe: That teaching is not a popularity contest. That it is sometimes like parenting: They hate you now but (hopefully) love you later for lessons taught, for being demanding and raising the bar of expectation.

But getting there can be a bumpy, hurtful road — for good teachers and good parents.

Nowadays, in a world where an air of entitlement and consumer expectation has filtered even into institutions of higher learning, and where poor student evaluations can negatively impact even a good teacher, I can understand how a student with a pen and an instructor evaluation form might strike the fear of God in a teacher.

But in the words of an old Negro spiritual: “I shall not be moved!”

Well, maybe I’m a little bit overboard. And teacher evaluations certainly do have merit.

But I also believe that endeavoring to be a good teacher, like being a good journalist, or doctor, lawyer or even a good baker, requires a certain integrity and unwillingness to compromise the recipe for good success and excellence, even in the face of adversity. Even when people don’t “like” you. Even at the risk of them saying nasty or negative things because they disagree with your methodology, your passion or expectation, or simply because you’re “too hard.”


“This guy thinks he’s the Jesus of journalism,” one student once wrote of me.


But some of what students say can sting.

That much I came to see even through my mentor, Robert “Bob” Reid, a tough, hard-nosed journalism professor way back when I was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A good professor who doled out F’s for work turned in even one minute late, Reid was beloved by many students but despised by others — a fact that he was well aware of, he once told me with a sense of hurt in his voice.

And yet, he remained unflinching until his retirement in 2003 and his death in fall 2004. I told my students about Reid.

And here lately, I find myself thinking about him — about his passion for students, for journalism, for humanity and about his clear understanding of his mission as a teacher. That it is not about writing books that collect dust on shelves or the titles and prizes within or outside the walls of academe.

It is not about the glory of acclaimed scholarship, but about living testaments — the flesh and blood and souls of young men and women who can effect change for generations to come.

It is about students, whether they like us or not.

Truth is, I care. But as long as I’m not considered the Darth Vader, or the Judas, of journalism, I’ll live with that.

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