My Top Three Mistakes as A College Professor


The beginning of my teaching career

I started my teaching career in 2004, one year after I came to the US. I was a teaching assistant at Syracuse University (United States) while I was pursuing an M.A. in Communication. I still remember the first time that I taught. Standing in front of a group of 24 students who were only a few years younger than me felt daunting. I was devoured by their gaze. I felt nervous and powerless, wishing I could become invisible.

Prior to that day, I had no teaching experience. Moreover, I came from China, a country where public speaking was not commonly practiced. The struggle had been real.

After Syracuse, I joined the University of Maryland (United States) and continued to serve as a teaching assistant for four years while I was pursuing my doctoral degree in communication.

These five years as a teaching assistant absolutely prepared me to start a career in teaching, which I did. In August 2009, I successfully became a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Stockton University (United States).

I thought I was prepared. Boy, was I wrong!

My #1 Mistake: Too textbook- and exam-focused

I teach public relations, which is a highly applied field of communication. The early days of my teaching were strictly textbook based and exam-focused with lots of theoretical discussions. After all, I just got my Ph.D., all I could think of were theories and research methodologies. Very soon, I heard complaints in the hallway that my teaching was dull and irrelevant. Even to this day, I still remember what a student said, “it’s all theories. you cannot apply them.” That’s hurtful to hear but kind of a wake-up call.

But, the real wake-up came when I was teaching an interpersonal communication class. I noticed one student continuously scored one hundred in all the quizzes and exams. I was beyond impressed. But then I noticed that she didn’t know how to communicate in real life and had poor relationships with her team members. How could someone score perfectly in an exam but behave exactly the opposite in real life when what she learned was truly needed?

I revamped my teaching philosophy based on these experiences. I started to embrace experiential learning and service-learning. I partnered with non-profit and local organizations to offer students an opportunity to do hands-on learning, which has been truly awarding.

My #2 Mistake: Lack of Professional Experience

Human beings are storytellers. We connect with others via sharing stories. The best stories emerge when we have first-hand experience. And that’s exactly what my teaching was lacking: not enough first-hand experience and not enough personal stories. I need stories that come from my heart and that can truly captivate my students’ attention. Oftentimes, such stories come from first-hand experience. In other words, I realized I haven’t walked the walked yet. Interesting as I am writing this article, I happened to read Benjamin P. Hardy’s piece where he talked about how to train your brain to get what you want. In his article, Benjamin stated,

We spend our entire public education learning theory from people who have rarely ‘walked the walk.’

This quote described my earlier state as a teacher perfectly. It’s hurtful and maybe embarrassing to admit, but it happened in my case. Benjamin also shared a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.

The above statement is controversial. I am sure there are excellent teachers who are doers and I personally know many. After all, who am I to talk about the state of education? I can only speak from my personal experience. For a while, the second part of the quote described my state of teaching, unfortunately….I realized that I was not doing what I taught my students to do and I was not training my students the relevant skills that they needed to succeed in the workplace.

Soon after, I discovered another mistake I was making, probably the biggest so far — I stopped learning👇🏽

My #3 Mistake: I Stopped Learning

I thought after I got my Ph.D., my learning was over. After all, it’s a terminal degree, right? WRONG. That’s the biggest mistake ever. Learning never stops. It is needed not only in terms of the traditional textbook and theory learning, but also in the practical sense. In my case, I lagged behind in terms of professional learning. I was able to keep up with my publications and theory learning, but I didn’t pay as much attention as I need to the professional sector of my field. I was behind. So was my teaching.


These are three of my top mistakes in my teaching career. What are your biggest mistakes in your professional work? In tomorrow’s blog (Day 3), I will share the changes that I made to combat my mistakes. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, remember what Arianna Huffington told us,

Failure is not the opposite of success. It’s part of success.

Indeed, without failure, there’s no success. Failure is the pathway to success. If you like my article, please click on the ❤️ and share it with others.