Younger teacher, older students.
March 4, 2009 11:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be teaching a business class and I'll be at least 10 years younger than any of my students. Any tips?

I'm confident in the material and have no problems with public speaking. My only concern is that the students might think I'm too young to be taken seriously.

I'm not looking to demand respect and I really look forward to hearing stories and specific case studies from the students (they're all professionals).

Is there anything I can do from the get-go to make things run as smooth as they can? Anecdotes are more than welcome.

posted by 913 to Education (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First, when you introduce yourself on the first day, let the class know your background and your expertise in the area that you are teaching. Second, be very well prepared - know your stuff and know what you want to get done each day.

Finally be clear in your own mind that you are the teacher - it is your classroom and you have the responsibility (and power) to create and manage that learning environment. Don't play silly games, but don't be timid, expect respect. At the same time, as an older student, I really appreciated a teacher who respected the experience that I brought to the classroom.
posted by metahawk at 11:42 PM on March 4, 2009

Make a joke about how young you are? Self deprecation works wonders in lightening the mood.
posted by Groovytimes at 11:43 PM on March 4, 2009

Self-deprecation is good, but joking about how young you are is dangerous because that's also about how old they are.

I think age itself is not the issue that would affect being taken seriously, but experience -- the risk/fear is that a student may think that your "book learning" hasn't been sufficiently tempered by real-world experience.

But you know the material and they are there because they don't -- that's the dynamic that earns you their respect. Part of this is being honest about the things you don't know -- you're the expert in the topic of the class and each of your students is expert in some area that you aren't. Use and acknowledge their expertise and don't feel like you have to be a whiz at everything.

And not every class is for everybody. Some people who start the class might discover that it's not the right class for them. That doesn't necessarily mean that something's wrong with you.
posted by winston at 12:49 AM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

talk about how you got to be the expert that you are. highlight values they cherish: you sat down (disciplined) and figured it out (strategic) and got results.
posted by krautland at 2:51 AM on March 5, 2009

If you are in the U.S. then this probably won't be a problem. I had a similar experience and there was no problem. I was a new teacher (as it seems you are) and I had to quickly learn a few things: when writing on the board, write using large letters. Your idea about hearing specific examples from the students is smart. Maybe begin each and every class with a question related to upcoming material. Write the question on the board, and have everyone come up with an example from their experience relating to your question. Then spend 10 minutes going over several of them, and incorporate into the rest of the class. Have fun.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 3:00 AM on March 5, 2009

I don't think you will have a problem. Older students are likely to be serious about learning. As long as you know your material, you will be fine. Don't mention, or worry about, your age; if they're old enough, they're used to having a boss who is younger than them, for example.
posted by davetill at 3:50 AM on March 5, 2009

I wonder how one can learn from a master when one is not a master?

Content is one thing, but experience entirely different. I think if it's the case that this is a content class (i.e., accounting, etc.) or systems analysis or macroeconomics, you'd be OK. If it's a class in some other business topics such as marketing, organizational theory, etc. you may run into credibility problems if you don't have relevant experience and 'war stories' to share.

Might you consider involving them in your classes if that's the case? They represent a lot of experience you can mine and even though they are in your class to learn more, they probably have a base of some successes and some failures that you can solicit for examples where you may be lacking. Just a thought. Something as simple as 'I had a pediatrician appointment this morning so I didn't get to read up on this topic, but I was wondering...anyone in the class ever had any first hand experience with _____' , mixing humor, self-deprecation, and respect for them all in the same breath. Might help.

Good luck. I'd love to know how it turns out.
posted by FauxScot at 4:23 AM on March 5, 2009

Go in like gangbusters.

When I was 25, I started teaching an intermediate math course (for firemen, mechanics, and union automotive assembly workers). I look young, and a lot of these guys were literally my dad's age. I was given the text to teach from fifteen minutes before the first class. Ok, what the *fuck* do I do? I skimmed the text, as saw which sections were marked as being in that class. Then I skimmed the first three sections, and walked into class.

I'd given a little thought to how I wanted the class, homework, etc to go - like one of my favorite high-school classes. I used that as an example in giving a verbal "syllabus" right off the bat. Then I dove into the classwork.

You're going to have to be fast on your feet to pull this off - it's like the apocryphal prison scene, where the new guy goes after and beats up the toughest motherfucker in the joint to prove something. You cannot let your guard down. Make jokes about "looking 12" for icebreader, but don't even give them a chance to let that soak in as they laugh - relentless.
posted by notsnot at 4:35 AM on March 5, 2009

Ditto FauxScot. For the classes on memo writing, I asked my older, out-in-the-workforce students to bring in examples of Really Badly Written Memos (identifying details stripped out). They were happy to provide examples and enjoyed seeing their colleagues' errors laughed at by fellow students. Good bonding experience, practical demonstration of the principles I was teaching, and an acknowledgment of their status as real world employees vs. mine as a young university instructor.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:40 AM on March 5, 2009

A philosophy prof I once had started a lecture by writing, "Transcendental Hypothesis and the Theory of God" after which he paused, turned to the class and said, "Wouldn't it be fun to go into a 101 class, first day, and write that on the board." (He is the same guy responsible for this, BTW.)

Start there. Say something that lets them know that you couldn't be happier to be dealing with people who have some real world experience and practical knowledge, and are unlikely to be sending, he said / she said stories about last weekend in class. You can cram a bit of humor, put yourself on the same side of ye olde "kids today" attitude and show that you understand the real world enough to appreciate real-word experiences. All in about three minutes.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:08 AM on March 5, 2009

I agree command of the material is key and lots of good thoughts upthread. I changed professions drastically at the age of 45 (from cubicle world to skating coach); ALL of my instructors were 20 years younger than me. From the perspective of the potential older student in the class (which I've been), here are my thoughts:

Don't patronize these people. I have had young teachers (20 to 30 years younger than me) especially in tech-related classes, who treat me like an idiot. I walk out on classes like that and complain to management. Us olds don't want to deal with your insecurities, we just want to learn the material.

Unless you are very clearly much younger, (like you're 25 and they're 60), don't even mention your age. Dress with some maturity and people will average you out to be closer to them in age. I have found that all the 35-45 year olds assume I'm in my 40s and all the 60-70 yr olds assume I'm in my 50s (closer to the truth); I think it's a way to empathize and relate to you, which your students want to do.

This one's a little tricker, because again you don't want to patronize: try dressing "like a native." Come as close as your wardrobe allows to the prevailing look of the class-- are they showing up in business attire? You should too. Jeans and polos? All the women in skirts? Whatever.

Until you get a feel for the class and their daily lives, watch out for technical jargon (which comes across as patronizing and arrogant) and cultural references, because they are going to be different from yours. A reference to a sitcom from the 90s is going to be meaningless to people who still quote lines from Dick Van Dyke.
posted by nax at 5:32 AM on March 5, 2009

Professionalism and preparedness are the key things. Older students don't like their time wasted, so come in with a clear agenda (syllabus in hand, if possible). Introduce yourself and the reasons why you find yourself in front of them. Add a dash of humility, then get down to the brass tacks of how the class will be run and the the details of the first major assignment. Be clear about objectives and requirements.

Nax is right that you shouldn't emphasize the fact that you're young; let them assume what they will. Some will like you; some won't. You have limited control over that. It's the nature of the beast.

The students signed up for the class with the expectation that whoever teaches it will be able to deliver something of value. Focus on teaching well and the rest will take care of itself.
posted by wheat at 6:04 AM on March 5, 2009

Older students don't like their time wasted

Very true. Speaking in generalities here, but older, professional students, tend to be very serious about the classwork. Often they are footing the bill themselves, so they want to get their money's worth. They tend to be very receptive, and as long as they feel you are not wasting their time and are giving them something of value, you will be golden. As a young teacher myself once, I was always grateful to have these types of students in my classes as they tended to be more willing to participate, ask good questions and take things seriously. The teaching position bestows a certain amount of respect automatically, regardless of the age difference, so that respect is yours to lose really.
posted by Otis at 6:26 AM on March 5, 2009

Go in knowing more about the subject than you are presenting; this will shine through during any discussions. The attendees of your class are there to learn and will give you a chance, so it's up to you to screw up. Stay confident, don't bullshit, and admit if you don't know the answer to a question (and then follow-up next time with the answer).

I don't think the self-deprecating approach with respect to age is a good idea, it only attracts attention to your lesser age, and demonstrates a lack of confidence by showing that you're thinking about it. Let them make the jokes, and take them in stride.
posted by Simon Barclay at 6:51 AM on March 5, 2009

There are many good comments here, but I would like to emphasize the need for extensive preparation even given that you are completely comfortable with the material. If this is a math oriented or numerically oriented course, make sure you go through all problems/proofs/demonswtrations in advance. It's very easy for anyone to fumble a problem when your nose is up against the blackboard.
posted by Kevin S at 7:42 AM on March 5, 2009

Reemphasizing the above:

1) they can will turn on you mercilessly if they think you're wasting their time or straying from the material they expect to get.

2) Do not bullshit them. Someone will catch it and punish you for it. It will take a long time to gain the trust back, and until you do, you'll have to weather their doubts (read heckling). It will consume more of your time, such as having to justify stuff in class that you otherwise could have just redirected outside of class; such is the benefit of the doubt given to a respected instructor, and taken away from one they don't trust.

3) Along the lines of no bullshit: if they catch you in a mistake, even a huge one, admit it, ride out the brief anger, then fix it as soon as you can. They will respect you a lot if you fix it fast and learn from your mistakes.

4) Holy shit, be prepared. Think what you would expect if you were paying what they are paying. (I've had a student regularly call out from the back of the class stuff like "I just paid $75 for you to spend 25 minutes teaching me that!?")
posted by buzzv at 11:39 AM on March 5, 2009

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