I recently ran across the website of Dr. Richard Felder while searching for something else entirely, and I’m very happy I did. Dr. Felder is a professor emeritus of Chemical Engineering at NC State University and director of the National Effective Teaching Institute, who has spent the last 46 years researching engineering education. He has written over 200 papers on the subject, as well as a quarterly column called “Random Thoughts” for the Chemical Engineering Education journal. If you ever have a chance to read some of his Random Thoughts, I highly recommend them.
One Thought in particular caught my attention – “Teaching Teachers to Teach: The Case for Mentoring.” In this article, he makes the point that every profession, from medicine to sports, requires training to develop skill, because people cannot gain it simply through intuition. However, as we’ve discussed in class, college professors are often expected to do just that. They learn through trial and error what works and what doesn’t, and take years to develop into successful teachers (or not). (Note that this article was written in 1993 and things have not noticeably improved since then.) Instead of this horribly inefficient system, he suggests that every new professor co-teach their first two classes with an experienced professor known to be an excellent teacher. In the first, the mentor would take on the bulk of the preparation and teaching while the mentee attends classes, after which the two would have in-depth discussions of what happened. Gradually more of the responsibilities would be shifted to the new professor, until finally in the second semester the mentor acts only as a “consultant.” The mentor, meanwhile, would receive additional compensation to recognize the fact that mentoring takes more time and effort than teaching the class alone.
On the whole, I really like this idea. In fact, I would even extend it into graduate school, since many people begin teaching that early. I taught a course last summer, and I would have really appreciated a mentor who could help me create my syllabus, assignments, and lectures and critique my teaching style. There were times when I was struggling to engage my students, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking a professor to observe my class and give me suggestions. It would have been wonderful to have a mentor to help me out.