The Biggest Mistake College Teachers Make

What Else Can Go Wrong?

If you type “teaching mistakes” into your favorite search engine you will get more than 45 million hits.  I found articles with titles like “Teaching Mistakes: Four Lessons for Instructors ,” “Ten Worst Teaching Mistakes,” “How the Best Teachers Avoid the 20 Most Common Teaching Mistakes,” and “The 67 Worst Teaching Mistakes.”  Where does it stop?  Is the teaching profession the most mistake-ridden of all?  Is there an award for the writer who identifies the most mistakes?

By the way, I am part of the problem. I have written articles like 10 Terrible Mistakes College Teachers Make and How to Avoid Teaching Mistakes.

However, recently the thought has occurred to me that there is just one mistake, a really big mistake, that college teachers make.  All other mistakes spawn from, or propagated by, this seminal slipup.  The biggest mistake college instructors make is to take an ambivalent attitude toward their personalities and demeanors, because these traits form the foundation upon which make-or-break relationships with students are built.

I base my conclusion on years of experience as an adjunct instructor and as a college administrator.  I have many real-life anecdotes to support my theory.  However, it was not until I read a report published by Faculty Focus that I was motivated to put my beliefs in writing.  The article was “Teaching Mistakes from the College Classroom,” and it appeared in the March 2010, edition of a Faculty Focus Special Report published by Magna Publication.

What Successful College Instructors Had to Say About Their Own Mistakes

Faculty Focus put out a call for articles on teaching mistakes.  Reflective essays from 15 college teachers were compiled in a report entitled “Teaching Mistakes from the College Classroom.”  If you casually read through these articles, you will find quite a few bits of teaching wisdom.  However, together they tell a powerful story.

Ten of the 15 instructors mentioned or alluded to at least one of the personality traits listed below.  Each identified how their personality was the cause for a bad relationship with their students.   These six traits are typically construed as negative, and no explanation is necessary as to why college students would find these characteristics offensive.

  • Arrogant
  • Defensive
  • Dictatorial
  • Egotistical
  • Headstrong
  • Sarcastic

On the other hand, three of the traits that surfaced seem like positive attributes for college teachers.  They were:

  • Energetic
  • Kind
  • Passionate

However, the energetic, passionate instructor mentioned that he let his “vigor for the subject matter override any problems [he] might have with the students.”  He was so caught up in his teaching and love for the subject, that he was blind to his students, who happened to be adult learners.  Their expectations were not being met, and the entire class turned against him.  Then there was the kind instructor was loved by all her students.  She too was passionate about her subject.  She wrote, “They saw me as an easy mark,” and “I knew my students had mistaken my kindness for weakness.”

Introspection & Responsibility Were Common Themes

The 10 instructors who were critical of their classroom/teaching persona had two things in common.  Through introspection They were exposing personalities and propensities that can make or break virtually every personal and professional relationship.  In addition, they did so because they recognized a need to change.  Whether they arrived at their conclusions on their own or with help from others, they obviously internalized what it was they were doing and, in particular, the way they were doing it.

There is circumstantial evidence that they were successful in their attempts to change, but it is evidence.  They each exposed their personality flaws, and they each reported on them some time after their original epiphanies.  It is highly unlikely any of them would have written their report if their outcome had not been truly successful.

Student Complaints Lead to Evidence

I could relate 10 or 20 situations wherein a college instructor’s failure to take responsibility for his/her relationship with students was a problem.  These scenarios are always similar.  They begin with students complaints about their instructor.  It is almost always obvious that the students don’t like their instructor as a person.  They frequently relate stories of how their instructor was sarcastic or displayed other dislikable qualities.  When they give me permission to address their complaints, I always approach my instructors to get their perspectives.  I never take sides, at least not in the beginning.  Sadly, what I occasionally see is a display of the very traits that students complained about.

For example, there was a Ph.D. chemistry instructor of mine who related, “I told them what they needed to do to get better grades; work harder!”  His body language, coupled with his words, convinced me that he was the problem.  I believed that he was capable of the alleged criticisms he made of individual students in front of the class.  When he became defensive, I agreed that his students could work harder.  However, I could not make him understand that he had created an antagonistic relationship that was demotivating his students.

Then there was the time four HVAC students complained to me that their instructor was rude and sarcastic.  When I called him in to get his perspective, he became defensive, rude, and sarcastic.  Could his students have been correct?

One of my most problematic instructors was a civil engineer who filled in to teach a technical math course.  Her students came to me in a group to complain.  They presented a petition signed by 10 of them demanding she be fired.  When I talked to her, she became extremely defensive.  Sure, her students had not acted appropriately.  They talked amongst themselves during her lecture and would get up and walk out of class as they pleased.  Apparently one had even yelled at her, but she admitted yelling at the student too.  “They have not right to act this way,” she told me.  She was right, but I could not make her understand that her headstrong, dictatorial approach with her students was not working.  What made it worse was that this situation had occurred in a previous semester, though to a lesser degree.  I hoped my coaching would have paid off, but it did not.


When someone likes you, usually that person will work with you to overcome problems, even problems of your own making.  When you treat people with respect, most of them will respect you.  When you take responsibility for your actions they will respect you even more.

The successful college instructor understands that his/her relationship with students is critical. It is critical to success as an instructor and it goes a long way to maximize student success (a.k.a. learning).

College instructors who ignore their responsibility for developing positive relationships with students are making the biggest mistake a teacher can make. There are other critical mistakes college teachers make relative to pedagogy, classroom management, etc. etc., but those can be remedied through training. Not to diminish the effort, but the teacher need only learn a new skill and apply it. However, without the foundation of a good relationship with students, it is like the Biblical parable. It is like building a house on sand.

© 2012 Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

Posted May 24, 2012

About Dr. Paul A. Hummel, Ed.D.

My name is Paul Hummel, and I often introduce myself to others as a recovering engineer. If you are familiar with the Dilbert cartoons, let me simply say that I lived all of that. I started my college saga at Illinois Institute of Technology. Eventually, I earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and a Master’s Degree in Engineering Management. I worked for many years in industry, and during this time I did some college adjunct teaching. During my career I held several managerial positions in industry, the last as Director of Technology of a division of a Fortune 500 corporation. Then, in 1996, with minimal planning or forethought, I found myself working as a manufacturing consultant on behalf of Elgin Community College (ECC). My career in higher education began to take shape. I fell in love with ECC and with the mission of community colleges in general. I worked fulltime and occasionally taught college courses for my institution and two other colleges. After a couple years I set a goal to move over to the “credit side of the college” and eventually become a college administrator. In 2006, having earned my doctorate in education, I achieved that goal. I was hired by Waubonsee Community College as Dean for Technology, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. I have had the great fortune of working at two excellent colleges. The insights I want to share are drawn from the various college positions I have held. At ECC, in addition to my consulting role, I coordinated non-credit professional development training programs for three years and spent four years advising students in the TRiO Student Support Services program. That position helped me understand college education from the perspective of today’s college students. After seven years at Waubonsee, I retired April 30, 2013. I now devote my knowledge and skills to upgrading and expanding the websites I created beginning with Adjunct Assistance. I have three other websites: College Teaching Tips, Keys for College Success and Lighthouse for Learning. A lot of work lies ahead for me in terms of upgrading and expanding each of these websites, but I could not be more excited about fulfilling the vision I have for helping college instructors and their students succeed.


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