Better Late than Never
I recently came across an oldie but goodie, Larry Spence’s 2001 piece in Change, “The Case Against Teaching.” It’s filled with golden nuggets, definitely worth tracking down and reading the entire piece first hand. It’s going to be one you tuck away and reread. Here are two segments that resonated deeply with me.
“Why is education more resistant to innovation than business, agriculture, or communication? Because parents, reporters, citizens, children, politicians and professional educators share an unsinkable image of what teachers and students are supposed to do… It’s assumptions are that teaching is telling, learning is absorbing, and knowledge is subject-matter content. Teachers tell you what to learn and how to learn it” (p. 12).
“Beginning professors thus work in isolation without the criticism, advice, or example of their senior colleagues. Each struggles to learn the same lessons of classroom management. This arrangement guarantees not only the reinvention of the wheel, but the reinvention of the flat tire…. We get good at being professors-mostly by repeating the behaviors we witnessed while we were students” (p.14).
These quotes describe my teaching, in practice and philosophy, when I first entered the classroom as a community college adjunct, over twenty years ago. A family member asked, “What makes you think you can teach?” My response, “What makes any professor think they can?” I was a CPA, of course I could teach accounting.
You won’t be surprised when I admit it wasn’t so simple or straightforward. Truth-be-told, I was a terrible teacher. My first course did not start well. I knew it and so did the students. I thought it was their fault: lazy, unmotivated, unprepared, lacking ability. It didn’t cross my mind that I might be the reason the class never asked questions and performed poorly on exams. Borrowing from Spence, I reinvented the flat tire.
We were several weeks into the term when a student made an appointment to see me. We met in the library. I was ready to discuss accounting. She had other ideas. She started by telling me that it was clear I knew the material and was obviously successful in practice. So far… so good.
Then she dropped the bombshell: “I’m sure you realize the class is not going well. Would you like some pointers to improve your teaching?”
At this point, I remembered from the first class period introductions, this woman was a retired teacher. She was starting a consulting business and wanted to be able to understand her accountant. That’s why she was taking the class.
My initial reaction was shock and dismay. I felt like someone dumped cold water on me. Then I quickly considered my choices: Remind her I am the teacher. No thank you, I know what I’m doing! Or, admit it’s not going well and ask for help.
I swallowed my pride and asked for her advice. I implemented her suggestion, an active learning strategy, during the next period. It worked. Students watched me demonstrate, they took notes, and immediately did a similar problem in class. They had questions and I answered them. The transformation was remarkable.
The student who met with me, I am dismayed that I don’t remember her name, stayed until everyone else left the classroom at the end of the night. As she walked toward the door, she paused and said “Now you’re a teacher.” I didn’t realize it then, but that night changed my life. I started teaching because I thought there was a lot I could teach others. I continue teaching because I have much to learn.
To all the students who’ve learned with me and helped me grow as a teacher, thank you.
Reference: Spence, L.D. (2001). The Case Against Teaching. Change, Nov/Dec: 10-19.