In Praise of Crazy Teachers


Sam beautiful in five ways

By Sam Graham, LSU

Two assumptions guide how I see others: we’re all fundamentally good and a wee bit crazy.

Two assumptions guide how I see teaching: we should all be good and a wee bit crazy.

It’s easy to see how being good – ethical – helps your teaching. Of course we should consider what our students want or need to get out of our classes and make sure that they can get this. Why not be compassionate, aware of and empathetic about the troubles of learning and being a student?

Sometimes we’re not as good as we’d like to be. We get busy and tired. Institutional frameworks have us do things that we don’t always think are best.

Still, though, it’s uncontroversial to aim to be good as a teacher, tempered as this goodness might be.

Being crazy as a teacher isn’t so accepted.

What do I mean by crazy?

I mean being a bit different. Believing things that most others don’t, doing things that others haven’t, liking things that others have no interest in and seeing the world uniquely.

I don’t mean hearing voices or throwing tantrums in class, and I don’t mean simply acting the fool.

Brightly coloured socks – of which I own many – don’t cut it either.

We forget most of what we learn at university or school (link ) and we’re left with meta-lessons and personal lessons. The meta-lessons come from watching an expert teacher work through problems (as described in this article linked to in the Top 5 #27), and the personal lessons come from people who are a bit different or do things a bit differently.

I loved teachers who offered a bit of themselves, professional or otherwise. Talking with my students, most students do too. I found my microeconomics tutorials far more interesting when the tutor told us about her studies of pricing in fish markets. High school social studies meant more when the teacher – who incidentally had the most glorious beard – shared stories of his partially completed goal to see for himself the remnants of all the world’s ancient civilizations.

So why don’t we show our craziness?

There’s pressure  against imposing ourselves – our opinions and world view – on students. However, students – especially those at university – are a lot more developed than a lot of us give them credit for. Perhaps it’s patronising to think that they will be so easily swayed (manipulated?) by what we think.

It can also be seen as arrogant to overlay the curriculum or planned teaching materials with your perspective. But curriculums and fields of study themselves necessarily hold a world view. Anyway, the curriculum was either written by someone who is as crazy as you or who is unbearably boring.

Some are reluctant to mix their personal and professional lives. Fair enough, but showing some of our oddness can be from your professional rather than personal self. If you’re not comfortable sharing your bonsai tree obsession (and it’s hard to see how this would be relevant), share your professional quirks

Although I mightn’t reach such levels of awesomeness, and although I can’t think how academic skills could be so visually engaging, I do aspire to be just a little like this MIT professor:

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3 responses to “In Praise of Crazy Teachers”

  1. hainesdj2013 says :

    Sam the man, vietnam

    what inspirational stuff.

    Mr MIT who makes physics seem real.

    Mr Sam the man (Vietnam), who understands how to excite and motivate students.

    When we relate, we remember, we learn.

    Teachers need to learn how to inspire.

  2. Stephen McGrath says :

    For mine, teaching is an intensely personal thing. What gets to me is when a small percentage of students ask what a story, anecdote or otherwise lively addition to the tedium has to do with the textbook, lesson or curriculum. I’ve even been asked why we weren’t studying the book, and what the activity in question had to do with learning English or IT (I usually remind them that this is primarily “an English communication class”, at that point). These students tend to be very studious types with no imagination, personality or sense of humour. It then becomes my personal objective to try to get through to this group that it’s important to think and live in a more open manner, understanding that education appears in many forms.

    A question to you – Do these students exist primarily in Asia, possibly as a result of “tiger parents”, or are common globally?

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Sam (the writer) here.

      Honestly, I don’t know, but I think assessment and career incentives play a big role in determining the culture of how practical students are.

      I think students in Vietnam and Hong Kong are more exam focused than those in New Zealand or the UK (all countries where I have lived). Perhaps a part of this might be that the consequences of failing are so much higher in VN and HK. Having a low-skill and thus likely a low-pay job in VN or HK is a whole lot worse than it is in NZ and (I think) the UK, where you can have a decent, if not entirely easy, lifestyle with less money.

      With that said, I went to a university in the UK with *all* the assessment taking place in eight three hour exams over 10 days at the end of my degree. It was easy not to be focused on assessment and to indulge ourselves in what *we* considered worthy, not what we thought the exam/curriculum would consider worthy. When I got back to NZ and took a law paper, it was interesting to overhear undergrads talking about taking the courses that were easiest to get good marks in – understandable given that to get into the law programme in the second year you needed an A- average in the first. Incentives at play again.

      My impression is that students in the US are more practical about their education than the British. Again looking at the assessment incentives, this might be because it’s very difficult to fail a paper in the UK (you just get a bad degree classification instead and everyone knows you did a bit rubbish…but at least you still get your degree!) whereas failing is (I think) more common in the US.

      British students also seem to be more likely to study what they want rather than what they think will get them a good job. From what I’ve seen, employers in the UK are tolerant about a seemingly irrelevant degree than other places I’ve lived. Perhaps this is changing, though. The recent increase in fees saw less people taking non-lucrative subjects ( and

      Related to this are two articles that will be in tomorrow’s Top 5:

      New Model for Business Education – Inside Higher Ed: says that business education needs to be more rounded so that graduates are not able to just do the mechanisms of business, but be creative, understand cultural context, etc, as these are vital for business success.

      How to Assess the Real Payoff of a College Degree – The Chronicle of Higher Education: an in depth article looking at both sides of the argument about whether return on investment should be central to universities’ purpose.

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