Mimicry … Crime or Flattery?

As humans, we mimic each other. We mimic the behaviors we see, the way we hear people talk, and the way we interact with others. Therefore, it is not a far leap to say that whom we become as teachers is likely based (at least somewhat) on whom the teachers we have had are/were. Ideally, we only mimic the behaviors, actions, nuisances, etc that we deem positive; yet, I know for a fact that mimicry is much more complicated than that. Unfortunately, while we may pick up some positive traits from others, we also pick up negative traits. Even worse, we can lose sight of whom we are by trying to be someone else.

Image result for monkey see monkey do

They say that mimicry is the greatest form of flattery. And, to an extent, I understand that. If someone likes what you are doing enough to attempt copying it, it is gratifying. That said, however, our teachers should not teach us to be like them. They should teach us how to be the best versions of ourselves. Sarah Deel points this out in “Finding My Teaching Voice” where she discusses how important it is to be genuine as a teacher. Students will not respect you if they realize you are being fake – thus, if you are not funny, don’t try to be. If you are not super animated and extroverted, don’t pretend that you are. Deel further states that teachers are not entertainers … yes, teachers need to hold the attention of their students, but it is not their job to act. It is important that teachers be themselves. Your teaching voice should not be worlds-away different than your every-day (professional) voice.

That said, teachers should still be trained (cough, taught) to teach. While to some, teaching comes naturally, to others, it does not. This is one thing that baffles me about our higher education system. When I was an undergraduate, I assumed that all of my TAs were experts in the fields they were teaching. While at times I suspected otherwise (we all have had a TA or two who made us question this), I didn’t fully comprehend the fallacy behind this until I became a TA myself. I attended a brief 2 day seminar that discussed teaching and tested me to see if I could talk in front of others and relay information. But, I was not tested on my knowledge of the material to be presented in the class to which I was assigned. I was fortunate in that I have taken numerous Biology courses and thus felt relatively comfortable giving biology lectures 3 days a week. However, I still had to brush up on the basics. Since then, I have heard of many people who are assigned to TA or teach classes they have never taken before. To me, this is crazy. Students pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for a college education, and we give them people who have never even learned about the topic they are teaching? Even professors, who hopefully are experts in their fields, do not have to have teaching experience. And, sadly, this often shows. Many don’t even like teaching, and, as the saying goes:

Image result for teachers who love teaching

So, what is the solution? How can we teach people to teach without them just mimicking others? Personally, I believe that the answers starts with encouraging creativity and fostering the ideal of self-confidence. People who are confident in themselves are less likely to feel the need to copy others. What are others’ thoughts?

14 Replies to “Mimicry … Crime or Flattery?”

  1. As a TA who is teaching outside of my own expertise, I understand that there might be some sadness in that they aren’t getting an expert in the field. However, I choose to embrace of my lack of knowledge. It forces me to be honest with the students that I am only a week ahead of them in learning the material. I feels like it lets them know we are in it together, except that I don’t have to take the quizzes. It seems like teachers don’t want to be their authentic-selves, because they don’t want to get caught in that moment where they are corrected by a student or get a question they can’t answer. Currently, that is my home as I have been corrected, confused, and unable to answer questions. With that said, I still work hard to make sure I feel confident in the things that I am telling the students.

    I agree that we shouldn’t simply try to copy other things simply because they seem cool. We need to step back and ask is this appropriate, and how could I use this? I get the general sense that excellent teachers are always willing to discusses their style with you and share ideas. I think it is important to talk to those people who we wish to emulate. Maybe our struggle comes from the fact that we don’t have a ton of time to invest in honing our teaching craft.

  2. Hey Chris ~ thanks for your comment! I think that it is very comendable that you work so hard to learn the material you are teaching! I know I had to teach myself several things before teaching the bio classes as well. Sadly, I have seen several TAs who don’t take the time to do this. Instead, they read off pre-made slides and are often unable to answer questions. This can also be true of professors. I agree though that it is really nice to have a TA or professor who shows vulnerability and does not pretend to be someone he/she/they is/are not or to know things that he/she/they do not know. I have seen TAs say “just google it” to students, and I don’t think that is okay. That doesn’t mean that we should hand everything to our students ~ they need to learn to find answers for themselves. But, we also should not just tell them to figure it out. It is our jobs to help them figure out how to figure out what they are learning.

  3. These are great points, Erin! It’s just like when you hear that annoying song on the radio – you don’t want it to be stuck in your head, but it’s the last thing you heard and now you can’t get rid of it. I know this has to happen in teaching. I have had a majority of lecture-only based courses in my educational career. Some of the information was really, really interesting, but I can’t help thinking now that some of those courses could have been way better if they weren’t taught in a strictly lecture format. And I’m also sad when I realize that my daydream-assigned teaching identity was me as a lecturer. Thanks to this class, I’m now thinking way outside of the box about teaching styles!

  4. I will add to your comments about teachers being trained. I think professors should get advice about teaching from their colleagues. “Colleagues can provide helpful insights about teaching specific courses and about teaching in general (what works and what doesn’t)” (WUSTL, 2018). Some universities may provide new professors with feedback about their teaching. At Washington University in St. Louis, “Gina Frey, Executive Director of The Teaching Center, is available to observe your teaching and to consult with you on teaching matters, such as course planning, improving student learning, and grading” (WUSTL, 2018).

    Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL). 2018. Tips for Faculty Teaching for the First Time. Retrieved from http://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/resources/course-design/tips-for-faculty-teaching-for-the-first-time/

    1. Hi Ernesto! Thanks for your comments. I agree that professors should get advice from their colleagues as there is no point in re-inventing the wheel! However, I think it is also important that professors find the style that is best suited for not only their students but also for themselves and not just do something because someone else did, and it worked for him/her/them.

  5. I enjoyed reading your post. The first TA l had was not enrolled in my program or anything relating to my field. Needless to say it was not a good experience. The class had maybe 25 people and I was shocked on the last day that she still did not know our names. Granted, she may have been a TA for other classes and larger ones, but it surprised me that she didn’t even try by printing out the class roster. Throughout the whole semester she seemed disengaged and would only be present for the first 20-30 minutes of class. It was hard to trust her grading when I felt like she did not have a clue as to what was going on in the class.

  6. You made a good point when you said: “…to some, teaching comes naturally, to others, it does not …”. This makes me think that there are many faculty members who love doing research and actually are very knowledgeable in their area, but they don’t like (care for) teaching. “Teaching doesn’t come naturally to them”. The result of having somebody who is not a teacher in class is a frustration for students and the person who is supposed to be teaching. I think the training comes after caring, and that’s exactly when authenticity becomes a given and an inseparable part of the person not something to be reminded of or to be taught.

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