Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below looks at three beliefs about learning to teach hinder the early efforts of new teachers. It is from Chapter 7, New Faculty: Beliefs That Prevent and Promote Growth, in the book, Inspired College Teaching: A Career-Long Resource for Professional Growth, by Maryellen Weimer. Published by Jossey-Bass A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-174 [www.josseybass.com]. Copyright 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Mistaken Beliefs About Learning to Teach
Three beliefs about learning to teach hinder the early efforts of new teachers. The barriers they create continue to affect the development of midcareer and senior faculty as well.
Mistaken Belief 1: Teaching Is a Gift
Many new teachers start out assuming that teaching is a gift-an idea introduced in principle 2 of Chapter One. Teaching does involve natural ability-some teachers are gifted with more than others. But teaching also depends on a skill set that can be learned and then molded into a unique teaching style. If new faculty equate teaching effectiveness with natural ability and things don't go all that well in the classroom, they are left with the unhappy conclusion that they don't have the gift. This cannot help but change feelings about teaching-especially for academics who have already excelled with complex academic content and are unused to being anything but exceptional.
Unfortunately, the equation of teaching excellence with natural abilities is reinforced by the way even some excellent teachers talk about their own teaching. They have not thought deeply about what they do and why it works. I remember a conversation I had with one of the most skilled discussion facilitators I have ever observed. "How do I get so many students discussing? Gosh, I just ask them questions." "How do I keep track of all their comments? I do that? Gosh, I haven't really thought about it before. I guess, I just listen." "The way I diagram discussions on the board is unique? How did I come up with that? Gosh, I guess I started doing that because I needed to keep track of where we'd been and where it looks like we're headed. I'm a pretty visual learner." It was as if everything that this teacher did was simple and derived by happenstance. He put on his teaching much like he dressed in the morning, by rote and habit.
Mistaken Belief 2: Mastering the Techniques of Teaching Will Be Easy
The idea of effortless teaching or just doing what comes naturally leads directly to a related mistake. Gifted teachers, those with lots of natural ability, learn from experience automatically, almost inevitably. They do what needs to be done easily, flawlessly-two tries and they've got it down pat. They can't even say how they learned it.
Giving new teachers simple answers to complex problems reinforces this idea that teaching techniques are easily mastered. The advice makes it sound so easy. You have trouble with students not doing the reading? Give them a quiz. You have the same students answering every question? Call on those who don't volunteer. You don't have class time to waste on announcements? Post them online. How difficult can teaching be with solutions this straightforward?
Now what happens in the classroom regularly challenges the idea that teaching is easy. New teachers discover the answers don't always take care of the problem, or in taking care of one problem, they create others. New faculty learn the hard way that acquiring techniques and using them to promote learning are not the same thing. When beliefs and experiences are at odds, new teachers start to doubt themselves and wonder about their aptitude for the profession. "If this is so easy, why can't I make it work?"
First experiences in the classroom can be unnerving. I remember telling myself at the end of my first year teaching that if the second year wasn't any better, I was definitely going to change careers.
Some new teachers avoid the uncomfortable question of competence by looking for other reasons that might explain less than impressive performance in the classroom. They start to play the blame game; some turn pro, making a career of blaming everything that happens in the classroom on someone or something else. Students are an easy target. They don't listen. They show no respect. They won't study. They aren't well prepared. They won't ask questions. They don't come for help. They aren't interested in learning. Today's college students (especially the 18-23 year-olds) are definitely not easy to teach. But as frustrating (some days, exasperating) and disappointing as they may be, students don't deserve to be blamed for everything that goes wrong in the classroom. Sometimes the blame does belong on their shoulders-but sometimes it deserves to be shouldered by their teachers.
Assuming that teaching is a gift or a set of easily mastered techniques creates a wrong impression of teaching. It generates thinking that simplifies and trivializes teaching, robbing it of complexity and intellectual robustness. Out of it have come those beliefs that devalue teaching: "If you know, you can teach it," and "Those who can do, those who can't teach."
New faculty start from a stronger position when they believe that regardless of natural ability, much about teaching still needs to be learned. Some instructional knowledge is straightforward, but just beyond those first easy answers are a slew of complicated algorithms mastered with practice and a commitment to pursue excellence. For the vast majority of teachers, learning to teach and continuing to teach well requires concerted effort and plenty of good, old-fashioned work. And like most other kinds of learning, there is always more to learn. It is impossible to know everything about doing well in the classroom and with students.
Mistaken Belief 3: Teach Like Your Best Teacher or Teach the Class You Would Like to Take
Often good teachers we've had have influenced our decisions to study particular fields. I've heard many new faculty graciously attribute their presence in the field to a previous teacher. That is wonderful-it's a powerful reason to teach. But is it valid to assume that through emulation of others new faculty can find their way to teaching styles that works for them?
I have written previously (Weimer, 1993) of my first attempts to teach like one of my favorite teachers. He was the only teacher I've ever seen who had truly mastered the Socratic method. With one or two follow-up questions he could help a student transform a first feeble answer into something way more intelligent and insightful. His classroom presence loomed large and powerful. He was Italian and simply gorgeous. I aspired to teach just like he did. Of course, my efforts were a dismal failure. On my feet, in front of the class, I couldn't think of follow-up questions to poorly framed answers. I didn't have a commanding teaching presence. I was neither Italian or gorgeous. But even these obvious differences didn't save me from major disappointment. I didn't have it in me. I would never be as good as my favorite teacher was. It was years later before it came to me that wonderful as he was, he was not a good teaching model for me.
Emulating favorite teachers works only so long as the new teacher's style is at least somewhat like the favorite. Chapter Two addresses the development of the teaching style, defined there as those behaviors used separately or in combination with other behaviors to convey the aspects of teaching excellence, things like organization and clarity, for example. Behaviors can be borrowed from favorite teachers, but what usually makes those teachers memorable is their teaching persona-how teaching reveals their personhood, their integrity, and uniqueness as human beings.
Parini (2005) describes the development of the teaching persona as the creation of masks-not to conceal identity but to represent uniqueness. These masks are fashioned from bits and pieces of how previous teachers presented themselves to students as well as from individual identity. "Just be yourself" - that's the advice frequently given new teachers. "Do what comes naturally." Like other simplistic advice, it contains kernels of truth but ignores complicating factors like what it means to be professional in the classroom with students. Teachers should not act in the classroom like they do at home in their PJs.
On the other hand, teachers can be too professional. They get so into acting like professors, they no longer come across as persons. Students need to be able to connect with teachers as people. The "Be yourself" advice is correct in the sense that teachers don't want to be someone they aren't. But it's not always helpful advice because most new teachers don't start out with an already developed teaching style or persona. It must be created and tried out, and first attempts are not always successful.
Parini (2005) describes his early teaching experiences. "Sometimes I played the pipe-smoking, genial man-of-letters who just happened to wander into the classroom, almost by accident. I would sit on the edge of the desk, my tweed jacket frayed at the collar, my elbows covered in leather patches. I offered jocular (though learned) remarks instead of organized lecture notes and I replied wittily to student questions" (pp. 60-61). But this persona didn't fit. "I needed a bit more fire, a bit of madness," and so he started whispering, then shouting, pacing "like a caged animal," even throwing chalk at the blackboard. "Each time I acted in these extreme disguises, I came away from class feeling empty and false, something of a fool" (p. 61).
Parini's experience illustrates the trial-and-error process of developing a teaching persona. It takes time to learn how to combine expressions of personhood with appropriate professional behavior. It takes a certain level of maturity to accept strengths and weaknesses, to understand that we simply cannot do well what some teachers do even if we may want to do it.
When I started teaching I assumed that all good teachers lectured from notes. All mine had. Right from the beginning I had a terrible time managing the notes. I've always moved around a lot. I would take my notes with me only to find myself someplace without them. I carried on. Then I'd find them, only now I was covering topics in a different order and couldn't locate what I needed in my notes. But good teachers lectured from notes. Students expected it. It was a good ten years into my teaching career before I was able to accept that lecturing from notes didn't work for me. Maybe my credibility with students suffered, but I know I did a much better job teaching without notes. I should have abandoned them years earlier.
Emulating great teachers may honor those teachers, and certainly much can be learned by seeing a masted (as well as those not as masterful) at work in the classroom teach. Techniques, approaches, even expressions of personal style can be borrowed, but the best teaching is always teaching that genuinely and authentically represents the person involved. New teachers must find their way to those teaching styles that work for them and those teaching personae that best convey their personal identity. Copying favorite teachers without reckoning differences makes discovering individual connections to teaching more difficult. Emulation makes it less likely that teachers will come to understand that even though creating a style and teaching persona seems like it's about the teacher, it really isn't. Truly great styles and personae are those that connect with students, those that motivate, inspire, guide, and help students to learn. And that involves a whole more than just doing what comes naturally.
As for teaching the classes teachers would like to take, this belief rests on the premise that what helped the teacher learn will help all other students. Unfortunately, students learn in a myriad of different ways. Some may learn as their teacher do, but it is more likely that today's college students will favor learning modes quite different from which ideas can be drawn, but good teachers discover early on that student experiences and approaches to learning are more like a river than a well. Nets work better than buckets.
Learning more about teaching is an option at every juncture in an academic career. However, what faculty believe about learning to teach will influence their attempts to learn. If they think teaching excellence is mostly a function of natural ability or the mastery of a few techniques, or if they believe development is best approached by emulating others, those beliefs stymie the kind of growth that sustains teachers and makes their teaching inspired. For career-long growth, teachers need to see learning to teach as an ongoing process with more challenging than easy answers and with authenticity better growth from within than from emulation.
Parini, J. The Art of Teaching. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Weimer, M. Improving Your Classroom Teaching. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1993.