Time as a teacher

Author: Bill Brennan '01MBA


Education has a rhythm, a seasonality that naturally occurs as pupils flow from anxious beginners to stretched, tested performers who are ready to begin a new chapter in their lives. This process has a tempo that is carefully managed by a teacher, a conductor of sorts, who attends to the process of transferring knowledge to a younger generation.

From my staff perch here at Notre Dame, I observe many great teachers as they go about their craft of developing young minds. They affect lives by taking what some would consider to be simple acts and transforming them into an art form. This equation has another side, however, as these dedicated professionals sometimes encounter pupils who are unprepared, overwhelmed or apathetic.

A short time ago I glimpsed that other side. In this case, the MBA program staff had just concluded a new course that we plan to offer our students on a regular basis. For this course, a representative from a Fortune 500 company presents our MBA students with a problem the firm has yet to resolve. In a four-day period our students evaluate the problem, develop potential solutions and present their recommendations to the company representatives who “own” the problem. We were confident that we had discovered a new category of courses that would provide great value to our students.

We had just completed the inaugural course, and as I walked out of the classroom and down the hallway I was approached by one of our students. She was an excellent student and had been one of only 19 students who had been enrolled in this pilot course.

She also was very direct. “That whole course has been a complete waste of time,” she told me. This response floored me, and I left this encounter both confused and a bit disappointed.

In the weeks that followed I considered many questions. Was she correct, had the course been a failure? Did other students feel this way? Where had the “disconnect” occurred? What could have gone so terribly off course that she walked away with this impression? And, most important, what could we do to improve the design of the course for the future?

The next few months were filled with quantitative and qualitative research, interviews, conference calls, and course development and planning discussions. Although I was engaged in all of the activities associated with a busy schedule, this student’s response was never far from my thoughts.

Round two

The same student, however, had one more surprise in store for me. Once again I was heading down one of the college’s hallways when I saw her walking directly toward me. After we exchanged a few pleasantries, she said, “I want to thank you for your work on that course. It was the best course I took in my whole educational experience here.”

After working to quickly control my great sense of shock, I thanked her for her comment, wished her well in her professional endeavors following the forthcoming graduation, and walked away a little uneasy as a result of her conflicting views.

How, I wondered, could the same student who had thought that the course was a “complete waste of time” only three months ago then enthusiastically state that it was the “best course I took in my whole educational experience here”?

As I reflected on this, I came to recognize that “time” may be a key variable in the learning process. Parents, teachers and mentors face many challenges when they work to instill discipline, teach courteous behavior or develop character in the young people with whom they work. For a variety of reasons, lessons frequently may fall on “deaf ears.”

Within the academy, we often hear such descriptive buzzwords as “experiential learning,” “blended learning” and “integrated learning” — all of which have evolved to be effective instruction methods. Still, the timing of the teaching is instrumental, and instructors need a strong level of belief that, at a later time, the lesson will resonate. It is from experiences such as mine that one comes to realize that a “teachable moment” truly occurs only if the recipient is of a mindset to absorb and digest the nuggets of knowledge being shared.

When I think of the Teacher — in the temple, at the well, on the mountain and with Martha — I find peace in this concept of “time” in teaching, for sometimes it is only through “time” that wisdom can be revealed.

Bill Brennan is the director of MBA Program Initiatives in Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.