SWOT: A strategy for mid- & late-career teachers


One of the most common analytical approaches taught in business programs is SWOT Analysis. Students are asked to identify an organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats.  The results identify strategic, proactive actions the firm can take to improve.  Andy Molinsky, author and speaker, recently blogged about the need for entrepreneurs to apply the technique to themselves, asking entrepreneurs to consider their blind spots, weaknesses and opportunities.  You can find the source article here. I think SWOT can be a useful exercise for mid-career teachers.

Strengths.  What are your teaching strengths? Are you organized? Do you plan well? Are you an engaging speaker? Do you have a way with words? Are you personable? Are you tops in your field? Are you reliable, dependable, trustworthy? Are you effective at motivating and inspiring students? Are you savvy with technology? Can you find that sweet spot of pushing students hard without discouraging them? In economic terms- what are your comparative advantages?

Weaknesses. Be honest. What aspects of teaching or work as a teacher is a struggle? Are you disorganized? Impatient? Do you have trouble learning students’ names? Have trouble managing teaching and learning at a reasonable pace? Does your teaching feel stale? Do you procrastinate? Return papers late? Miss opportunities for timely feedback?

Opportunities. Molinsky sees opportunities as “chances to build on your strengths and rectify your weaknesses.” Look at the patterns and relationships between and among your strengths and weaknesses. Are there ways to minimize a weakness by exploiting a strength? For example: Could you apply a technology skills advantage toward becoming more organized, managing paperwork, or grading more timely?

Threats. Threats can be internal, personal, departmental, or institutional. For contract faculty, job insecurity may be a significant threat. For tenure-line faculty slow publication acceptances and manuscript rejections can be significant professional hazards.  Decreases in funding, declining enrollments, changing demographics, new leadership, or a lack of institutional leadership can be threats to teaching vibrancy and effectiveness.

Look at the patterns and relationships between and among the SWOT categories.  How might you use this information to invigorate your teaching?

Additional resources:

Mid-Career Faculty: How to Stay Engaged Fulfilled and Productive. White paper from Faculty Focus, https://www.facultyfocus.com/free-reports/teaching-and-learning-free-reports/mid-career-faculty/

Phelps, Patty. Nov 12, 2014. Climbing the Stairs: Observations on a Teaching Career. Faculty Focus, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-careers/climbing-stairs-observations-teaching-career/

Weimer, Maryellen. (2010). Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.




Learning Insecurities

I recently read a piece by Lisa Shroyer in Interweave called Lisa’s List: 7 Insecurities all Knitters Have.” She describes a woman sitting next to her at a brioche class (a stitch technique, not the bread). The woman called herself a terrible knitter. Shroyer refutes that claim, identifying general learning insecurities of knitters. Several points clearly connect to academic learning.

“Tight knitting” can be reframed as “tight learning.” Novice learners are tense. There are numerous, simultaneous details requiring attention.  Tight knitting and learning goes with fear of mistakes, unwillingness to take learning risks, and an unwillingness to share or collaborate from fear of appearing foolish. To reduce tightness, ask students to remember what it was like to learn how to ride a bike. Words like tense, wobbly, and a little scary will come to mind. With practice, confidence grows and tension eases. Let’s remind students that learning starts wobbly but gains fluency with experience, training and practice.

Knitting an “ugly sweater” is akin to bombing an exam. Mistakes happen. Under-estimating the challenge, investing too little time or effort, and overestimating ability are part of being a novice. It’s not possible to learn without producing a few clunkers along the way. Shroyer puts it this way: “We’re all bad at things before we’re good at them. It’s how the universe works.”  

Consider offering more frequent exams.  Test early in the term to provide feedback to students sooner.  Provide strategies for students to learn from a poor performance.

Odd color combinations and mismatched pattern – yarn combinations are a variation on the “ugly sweater.” Learners need a safe place to experiment, to put concepts together and discover first hand what does and doesn’t work. The delete button and old fashioned erasers are tangible reminders: mistakes happen. Fortunately, they can help us learn. Since mistakes are bound to occur, teachers need to provide opportunities for them to happen in low-stakes situations.

“I’m not good enough / It looks too hard.” What learner hasn’t experienced feelings of doubt and inadequacy? When I feel this way, I remember encouragement my mother gave me through this analogy. If you are standing still and watch cars whizzing by on the highway, it’s intimidating. It’s easy to wonder how on earth we’ll ever be able to navigate that route. The answer: enter the ramp, increase speed, and merge. Once you’re in the flow it’s not so scary.  Teachers can be explicit about the ramp, the systematic increase in skills/knowledge/background that help students build up speed, accuracy and ability.  What seemed scary or impossible at the start of the course can be broken into segments, allowing for concepts and understanding to (e)merge. 

“My technique is weird / I knit slowly.” These concerns stem from peer comparisons. Unless technique is critical, as in medical or technical disciplines, differences in approach, style, and method should be expected and perhaps encouraged. Refrain from comparing students. Incorporate analogies like the tortoise and hare.  Discuss the ways learning is more like a marathon than a sprint. Not every runner has the same technique. Finishing well can be more meaningful than finishing first.

“I never finish anything.” Students often overemphasize product. Process is important too.  Sometimes I knit for the sake of knitting- it relaxes me. Other times I am focused on producing a garment I am anxious to wear. To help students attend to process, provide explicit examples of the steps of learning. Provide opportunities for students to discover how much their understanding of complex concepts has increased over time.

Learning is hard, but it doesn’t have to be scary or intimidating. Effective teachers consider content and affect. When we address common student fears we promote an environment where cognitive energy focuses on the challenges inherent to learning content, instead of unproductive insecurities.


Brioche Cowl. Persistence pays off!  Not perfect, but a big improvement from last year.



Learning about Teaching from “Good Bakes”

I recently spent a lot of time resting, icing, and elevating in my “granny chair,” recovering from hip-replacement surgery.  My brain was foggy; reading, and even my beloved knitting projects were more than I could tackle.  Watching TV was about all I could handle. In my search to find interesting programs, I came across The Great British Baking Show featuring Mary Berry (the British “Queen” of Baking) and Paul Hollywood (professional bread baking expert). Their styles mesh well and the show’s 10-week competition is engaging. It’s perfect binge-watching fodder.

Beyond enjoying the show’s format and personalities, I hoped to learn how to be a better baker.  An added bonus are the insights and timely reminders about teaching and learning I gleaned.

Vocabulary The show was filmed for a British audience. There are words and phrases in British baking vernacular that baffled me. Some examples: 180 fan; sultanas; Muscovado sugar; and strong flour. I routinely paused and Googled. I wondered: How often have I used vocabulary, which is second nature to me, that leaves students scratching their heads? While it was easy for me to pause, search the word or phrase and continue watching, students in a lecture would have to raise their hands and ask for clarification. Very few are willing to appear ignorant in front of their peers. Teaching Lesson: It’s important to periodically review our notes and lesson materials with an eye on vocabulary.  Better to be clear than mistakenly assume students are familiar with jargon.

Varied Assignments Each week the show presents different and more challenging themes, just like our lessons and assignments grow in complexity. What I found particularly compelling is the show’s mix of assignments. Each episode is a combination of specific and open-ended challenges.   The “technical bakes” require a very specific outcome. The outputs should all look identical. The “show stoppers” specify a category like “Victoria Sponge” but otherwise allow complete freedom to demonstrate skills in flavors, textures, and presentation. Teaching Lesson: Students benefit from both kinds of experiences. Initially, structured and specific formative practice and assignments allow students to develop skills and understanding as timely feedback is provided. Ultimately, allowing students some flexibility or choice of how to demonstrate mastery can produce “show stopping” learning.

Baking is Messy It might be more accurate to put it this way: You can’t learn to bake if you don’t get your hands messy. Mixing by hand. Feeling the consistency of the dough. Stirring the chocolate or whipping the egg whites to the desired consistency can’t be learned by watching. I’m not a better baker because I watched hours of baking shows. Learning Lesson: Our students often think they’ve learned from taking notes during lecture. Some teachers may agree. But watching the teacher diagram chemical compounds, solve math problems, produce flowcharts, or draw graphs shows that the teacher understands the material. Watching isn’t enough. Learning is not a spectator sport. Let’s make sure we remind our students of this, and more importantly, provide plenty of opportunities to get their hands messy with low-stakes practice to develop skills in- and out-of-class.

New Methods Because I enjoyed the program so much, I looked into buying a related cookbook on Amazon. Some reviewers lamented the need to convert from metric units. Others complained about weighing ingredients instead of using measuring cups. My initial thought was, “Ugh! I don’t want to deal with all that change and complexity.” But as I read more, I became convinced that weighing ingredients and measuring in grams is more precise and that produces better and more consistent results. Learning Lesson: Our students may be comfortable with learning strategies that sometimes work (like flash cards for memorization), but produce poor results in more complex situations. They may need evidence about why we’re asking them to try different learning methods. These new strategies may feel awkward, uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first. We need to keep pushing, coaching and providing opportunities for effective, long-term learning methods to take hold.

If you subscribe to Netflix I encourage you to check out the program and watch it through the lens of teaching and learning. Berry & Hollywood give candid feedback without crushing the novice bakers’ spirits.  They encourage and inspire. While participants are competing, friendships are formed and “competitors” frequently help each other. This engaging program models a classroom where high expectations, effective coaching, gentle humor, and collaboration are the recipe for learning and “good bakes.”

Baking bread

P.S. In case you’re wondering about the British baking terms:

180 fan= 180 degrees Celsius in a convection (fan) oven

Sultanas= golden (white seedless) raisins

Muscovado sugar= loosely, dark brown sugar, but with more nutrients

Strong flour= bread flour, higher in gluten for bread baking

After I drafted this post, I found an article about the new season which will be quite different.  See this NYTimes article for details.