That Mislead Beginning Teachers
Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s a set of
assumptions made about teaching and learning initially that inhibit
instructional growth and development subsequently. I think there is, and
here is list of these assumptions along with a bit about why each makes
teaching excellence less likely to develop and be sustained.
Teaching is a gift—Teaching does involve some natural
ability; some teachers are more gifted than others. But success in the
classroom also depends on a learnable skill set. If you attribute
success to a gift, then anything less than success must be equated with
the absence of a gift—and that bodes poorly for future development.
Learning to teach is easy—If teaching is a gift, then
any learning associated with it comes easily, much like a gifted athlete
learning a new sport. And much of what new faculty are given to learn
about teaching looks easy. In reality, just beyond those first easy
answers are a slew of complicated algorithms mastered only with practice
and a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. If you don’t seem to have
the gift and what’s being tried isn’t coming all that easily, is the
commitment to excellence likely to remain strong or might it be easier
to start blaming students for what isn’t being accomplished in the
Teach like your best teachers, and/or teach the classes you’d
like to take—Emulating favorite teachers works only so long as
the new teacher is like the favorite. Even then, the best teaching is
always teaching that is a genuine, authentic representation of the
person involved. New teachers must be their own persons in the classroom
and with students. They must discover and build on the strengths they
bring to teaching. If they try but can’t do what their best teacher did,
does that develop confidence and self assurance?
Most of today’s college students favor learning modes quite different
from those of the teacher. Previous learning experiences are a well from
which ideas can be drawn, but the river of student experiences and
approaches to learning is deep and wide. A teacher can fish for learning
with a pole or nets. If the size of the catch matters, then nets are the
Master the lecture first—This is perhaps not explicitly
assumed but clearly evidenced by what new faculty first do: they
collect, organize and present content. Lecturing is the easiest teaching
method to master, which might seem to argue in favor of tackling it
first. But lectures rely on things teachers can control. Learning to
lecture does not develop the skills of flexibility and spontaneity.
Lectures do not teach teachers to trust students. From discussion, group
work, problem-based learning, or any of a host of active learning
strategies known to better facilitate student learning, teachers develop
skills that make teaching a more dynamic, evolving endeavor.
The importance and relevance of content will be obvious to
students—Most students do not come to college in love with
content or with learning. Most faculty (even new faculty) forget how
content looks when first met. The reasons faculty love content may not
be relevant reasons for students to find course material attractive. If
students don’t embrace content, it’s easy for faculty to start blaming
them for all that doesn’t happen well in the classroom.
In courses students mostly learn content—They do learn
content, but content also teaches about process. And students learn life
lessons from faculty. Faculty like to think that they control what
students learn in a course—in fact their control over what students
learn is tenuous at best.
Content is important—both in individual courses and
program curricula. If students do not graduate solidly grounded in the
content knowledge of their major, they have not received a quality
education. But making content the be-all, end-all of classroom
encounters often prevents teachers from doing what promotes learning and
renders teaching a much less satisfying experience for teachers and
Some students cannot learn some kinds of content, and this lack
of ability will be obvious to teachers—Decisions about what can
and cannot be learned are made by students, and in some cases the
ability of the teacher to predict who will and won’t succeed ranks right
up there with palm reading and tea leaf analysis. Teachers do owe
students honest feedback. If the student has miles to go, the student
deserves to know that the journey will be long and hard. But when
teachers start making decisions about who can learn what, a kind of
insidious intellectual elitism develops. It keep faculty from seeing
promise in unlikely students and results in academic disciplines where
everybody thinks alike.
Teachers are always smarter than students—Teachers are
definitely smarter than most students and even smarter than smart
students most of the time. But the assumption is not always true. When
you believe that there are things that can be learned from students, you
make teaching a more rewarding adventure.
There will be behavior problems in every class unless the
teacher takes action to prevent them—Today most syllabi devote
way more space to what the students won’t be doing as opposed to what
they will be learning. Is it possible that prodigious efforts to prevent
problems end up promoting them? A retreat behind policies and
prohibitions ends up defining the teacher-student relationship
adversarially. Teachers and students both deserve to have bottom lines.
The question is how many and which ones. Teaching is a much less
pleasant profession when rule enforcement is its major task.
One of the questions we really need to be able to answer is why some
faculty end up so burned out, cynical and ineffective in the classroom.
I just can’t believe that most start out wanting to end up in that
place, but too many arrive there. Is there something about how they
approached teaching or believed about it in the beginning that headed
them down this nonproductive path? Is there a corresponding set of
assumptions that can put faculty in a more positive and productive
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