A Classroom Covenant

Teachers and students should promise up front how they will interact in class, says the University of Virginia’s Mark Haskins.

A Classroom Covenant

WHEN TWO PEOPLE MARRY, they speak their vows aloud, promising to cherish each other in sickness and in health. When a manufacturer sells a lawn mower, it makes an implicit and sometimes explicit promise to consumers about what the product will do (i.e., cut grass) and how it will do it (i.e., evenly and without spewing oil). Often, no such public covenants exist between faculty and students regarding how we will interact and what we expect from each other.

I have come to believe that it is important for faculty to craft and communicate a covenant they will abide by—giving voice to mutually beneficial expectations. To this end, I have developed a list of 15 promises I am willing to make to my students and a corresponding set of promises I want them to make to me in return. In the covenant presented here, I use language that is compact and core to the mission at hand, making my message “sticky,” to borrow a concept presented by Dan and Chip Heath in their 2007 book Made to Stick. I believe that, if we all abide by our promised behavior, we can create a classroom where enjoyable and effective learning regularly occurs.

FIFTEEN COMMITMENTS

In my classroom, I promise to:

1. BE THOROUGHLY PREPARED AND ON TASK. I will not “wing it” or engage in self-serving stories or irrelevant musings. If I do not know the answer to a question, I will say so and suggest how we might find it.

2. BE INCLUSIVE. I will not show favoritism when I grade or when I offer my time, assistance, and counsel.

3. BE FAIR IN WHAT I ASK STUDENTS TO DO. I will not burden students with assignments that add minimal value or carry unreasonable standards.

4. BE UP-TO-DATE IN MY FIELD. I will not present outdated principles, practices, or examples.

5. BE ENTHUSIASTIC. I will not—by word, action, or body language—suggest I am inconvenienced or bored by the teaching task at hand or by the students enrolled in my class.

6. SPEAK WELL OF COLLEAGUES. I will not criticize my colleagues’ capabilities or belittle the importance of their courses.

7. LISTEN ATTENTIVELY AND POSITIVELY TO STUDENTS. I will avoid anticipating what students will say when I call on them in class, and I won’t simply look for the errors in their logic, analysis, conclusions, or explanations.

8. CONNECT MY SUBJECT MATTER TO OTHER COURSES AND REAL-WORLD BUSINESS. I will avoid giving the impression that my course is the most important one students will take, and I will relate it, in practical ways, to other disciplines, current events, and leadership issues.

9. BE OPEN-MINDED. I will avoid conveying an attitude of “I know best.” I will assume there is merit in other ways to see an issue.

10. PROVIDE USEFUL AND TIMELY FEEDBACK. On graded assignments, I will avoid feedback that is late, terse, and only evaluative. Instead, I will seek every opportunity to provide developmental feedback.

11. ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO SHARE THEIR QUESTIONS AND INSIGHTS IN CLASS. I will invite questions, and I will push for comments that are more than a regurgitation of what I have presented in class or what students have read in a textbook.

12. BE UNSELFISH WITH MY TIME. I will welcome students at my office and make sure my availability there is generous. I will avoid regularly closing my office door.

13. PROPERLY SOURCE THE MATERIALS I USE. I will observe copyright laws and not misrepresent whose ideas and insights I am conveying.

14. START AND STOP CLASS PUNCTUALLY. I will not disrespect others’ time.

15. AFFIRM, CELEBRATE, AND ENCOURAGE STUDENTS. I will not embarrass, denigrate or discourage students by word or action.

THE RECIPROCAL PROMISE

Great basketball teams, jazz bands, and dance troupes bring several key ingredients to their accomplished tasks—talent, preparation, commitment, and clarity of purpose. Moreover, the members of each group rely on each other to do their respective parts, and when they do, the fluid and flexible blending of parts creates harmonic, elevated outcomes.

A classroom is another group enterprise that performs best when all participants engage with each other in ways they have agreed upon in advance. If my students and I are to create an effective and enjoyable learning experience, we must all have an active, understood role to play. I believe students benefit from knowing what I expect of them—there should be no ambiguity. The most eager and conscientious students will promise to:

1. BE PREPARED—for each class and each graded event.

2. BE SUPPORTIVE AND ENCOURAGE their classmates.

3. OWN THEIR SHARE OF THE LEARNING JOURNEY by exercising initiative and responsibility.

4. BE ON TASK. They should ask purposeful questions and offer suitable examples.

5. BE COURAGEOUS. They should push for understanding, defend a well-reasoned view, and provide a good-faith response when called on in class.

6. SHOW RESPECT TO CLASSMATES, the institution, and the faculty.

7. DO MORE THAN MEMORIZE FACTS OR THEORIES. They should internalize knowledge, articulate it in their own words, and be prepared to explain what they have learned to others.

8. LOOK FOR CONNECTIONS—to other courses, current events, and prior work experiences.

9. HAVE FAITH IN ME. They should believe that learning will result from my approach and course design.

10. PROVIDE ME WITH CONSTRUCTIVE FEEDBACK. They should conscientiously and professionally let me know what I did well and also what I could do more effectively.

11. LISTEN ATTENTIVELY. Build on the comments and contributions of classmates.

12. BE REASONABLE in requests for my out-of-class time.

13. REFRAIN FROM CHEATING or violating copyright laws.

14. BE ON TIME.

15. REGULARLY REFLECT on class insights to clarify and cement lessons learned.

CREATING THE COVENANT

Faculty who like the idea of a classroom covenant but want to create their own versions should first spend some time in individual reflection to crystallize the promises they want to make to, and ask of, their students. They also could actively seek ideas by observing and interacting with other professors in formal and informal settings.

For instance, at my school, instructors who teach different sections of the same course frequently hold weekly meetings to share experiences, expectations, and plans. We also visit each others’ classrooms often—because we’re interested in the topic, because we’re interested in new insights, because we’re on a supportive team-teaching task, or because we’re part of a tenure/promotion review process. In addition, we periodically attend schoolwide teaching forums. All of these more formal interactions can provide instructors with ideas about professional norms and shared teaching values, which can be translated into classroom covenants.

More informally, small groups of faculty frequently gather for lunch. Naturally, we play Monday-morning quarterback as we discuss what the university’s sports team did wrong that weekend, but we also talk about classroom dynamics. Additionally, many of us connect with colleagues at the end of the teaching day to discuss that day’s classroom experience. These seemingly mundane encounters often bring subtle points into sharper focus and lead to better ways to engage and interact with students. Thus, they too can provide ideas to be incorporated into a classroom covenant.

KEEPING THE PROMISE

During a couple hundred course introductions in my 37 years of teaching, I have mentioned many of the points I present in this covenant. Recent reflections, however, lead me to want to make a classroom covenant that is robust, explicit, and based on experience. At the beginning of the next course I teach, I plan to do just that, outlining both my part and the part I hope students will perform. I do not want there to be any ambiguity about the tasks, attitudes, and expectations I want students to embrace during their learning journey in my course. Intentionality, accountability, specificity, and shared commitment—the underpinnings of a well-honed covenant—can be extremely beneficial to the teaching/learning exchange.

 

Mark E. Haskins is a professor of business administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business in Charlottesville.