I hardly recognize myself. That’s expected when you’ve reached your 50s. Inside I feel like my 20-something self, but when I glance in the mirror I see someone much older. Sigh. At least the laugh lines and crows feet have come with some wisdom and perspective.
I recently told a colleague how I was planning to finish the semester in microeconomics. Her response, “soon you will be as I was, hardly recognizing the teacher I’d become.” That got me thinking about the ways I’ve changed as a teacher. That evolution is more dramatic than the ways my reflection has altered with time.
Insecure …to… Confident
Let’s be honest. New teachers are nervous. We might be content experts, but unless you are in education, the amount of pedagogical training provided in grad school typically ranges from little to none. We end up teaching as we were taught. I didn’t read much about pedagogy until I was tenured. I had the good fortune of working with an excellent mentor. I listened to experienced teachers. But generally, I was very nervous, insecure, and ignorant about teaching and learning in my early career.
I’m more confident now, but that’s only partly because of time and experience. A big part of that confidence stems from being more informed about my teaching. I read books about learning, cognition, teaching, technology and related issues regularly. I read several pedagogical journals. I have been conducting pedagogical scholarship for several years. I reflect on my teaching practice (this blog is invaluable to me in that regard). I present at teaching and learning conferences and lead faculty development workshops. Time, by itself, doesn’t make us better teachers. Learning, testing, experimentation and reflection are responsible for growing as a teacher and thereby increasing my confidence.
Pessimistic …to… Optimistic
Perhaps it’s my background as an auditor. Maybe it’s due to my upbringing or genes. Whatever the cause, my early teaching years reflected this view: If you don’t grade it, students won’t do it. It’s terrible to admit, but that suggests the teacher thinks many students are lazy and unmotivated. That attitude can manifest in a number of teacher behaviors that hurt student learning and/or prove self-fulfilling. When we expect the worst of students, they often deliver.
Over time, I looked at my courses from the student perspective. I discovered I wouldn’t want to be one of my students! I changed the tone of my syllabus. “Students will…” statements were replaced with “We will…” Instead of assuming the worst in students and planning for that in the syllabus, I tested the alternative position. My policies now assume the best. The result is that the worst-case scenarios (missed exams, cheating, etc) are outliers, not the norm. The more positive and optimistic I’ve become about my students and their learning, the more fun and productive my classes have become for me and my students.
Controlling …to… Facilitating
Never let them see you sweat. That’s an apt mantra for the insecure teacher. If you’re unsure of yourself, you certainly don’t want students to suspect. Often, the best defense is a good offense. For many teachers that means exerting complete control. It starts with a syllabus that spells out what will happen every minute of every class. Class sessions become scripted Powerpoint lectures. Sometimes students are given a script with blanks to fill in during lecture. Complete control means students have no say in policy, content, or assessment. Although I have never used slides to lecture or scripts for note taking, my early teaching behaviors and demeanor made it very clear, the class was MY show.
How and why did that change? I believe it started when I incorporated active learning strategies in the classroom. It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.
That brings me to the present. I have yielded even more control of my microeconomics course. What students will investigate during the last two weeks of the course and the format of their final assessment is a choice (within ranges). I’ll be teaching some content during a portion of each class. The remainder of each period will be dedicated to group and individual work on topics they identified in the Big Questions assignment (See https://1313lola.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/big-questions/ ).
I never had a professor/teacher let the students make the syllabus/lessons and I think this is why I am doing so well in the class. It’s a great way of teaching.
When I started teaching, sharing control like this was beyond my imagination. I wish I knew then what I know now. I scarcely recognize myself.