You Can Please Some of the People All of the Time. Good Luck with the Rest of Them.

January 7, 2010

Although he is often misquoted, Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. If you’re a teacher, all you need to do is replace the word fool with the word please. No matter what you do, it will be wrong for someone.

If I went to my classes next week and said that all students could do whatever they wanted to do, designing their own objectives and grading criteria, someone would be displeased, since s/he would be expecting me to provide assignments and guidelines. If I went in and said that nobody had to do anything, lots of people would be upset because they’re paying money for my expertise and they would view coming to class as a waste of time. If I said that no one had to come to class, there would be a few folks who would be happy, but most students would feel ripped off—to pay for classes and get grades for doing nothing is a perversion of the purposes of higher education.

Despite what you may have heard or read about a teacher’s responsibility to differentiate instruction and reach every student in the way that she or he prefers to learn, I’m telling you right now that this is an impossible task for anyone. First of all, it’s difficult to get to know people and their preferences well enough to truly individualize all of the time for each one. Much of what’s going on with learning is happening in someone’s head and is seldom articulated, even to the person her- or himself, much less to an outsider.

Secondly, teachers are human beings, and while they can be aware of learner differences and do their best to provide multiple avenues to understanding, it’s still likely that their most diligent efforts will leave gaps—they cannot please all of the students all of the time. I have a heightened awareness of this because I am looking through student evaluations from the past six years and I can only laugh. Generally, my evaluations are pretty good. I try hard to reach my students and I really do care about them and about their success. Still, for every person who thinks the course would be improved if there were fewer handouts, there is another who thinks there should be more. For every student who thinks the syllabus is too long, there is someone who thinks that it was missing crucial elements. And so it goes.

I take all of this seriously, but in the end, I have to do what I believe is best. This is what I was hired for. Students may not always understand although I do try—mostly—to provide a rationale for my instructional choices. I appreciate it when students ask “Why?” about assignments or methodology because the question initiates a dialogue about something I may have overlooked. I especially appreciate it when they ask in a non-combative, non-accusatory way that truly seeks understanding. This is important for you to know any time, but it’s especially important at the start of any term when you need to get started on assignments. Believe in the good intentions of your professors. Imagine that they have your best interests at heart and that they want you to be successful. Ask clarifying questions. Make suggestions for options that would make more sense for you. Ask why. But do it all nicely.

The actor Robert Mitchum said, “There just isn’t any pleasing some people. The trick is to stop trying.” Teachers don’t stop. Most of us are eternally optimistic or we couldn’t keep doing this job. Help us do it better in ways that will help you do better too.

Have you ever tried—and failed—to please someone?

You could cut off your leg and take off your skirt to make an umbrella for some folks and they’d complain if you dropped a little blood on them.
• Dr. Pauline Wayne


One comment

  1. This essay pleased me, a retired professor, very much.

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