On average, I feel I’m part of a generation of academics that cares much more about teaching and pedagogy than some of our predecessors. It is still possible to get and keep a professorship while dedicating a minimum amount of time and attention to teaching, but it is no longer as “uncool” to care about teaching well and want your students to succeed. There are more courses and programs and certificates focusing on pedagogy. Be that as it may, I can still relate to Sarah Deel’s account of trying to find a teaching voice while feeling there was little emphasis on teaching as a craft (published in 2004).
She talked about the questions she kept asking other teachers regarding how to interact with her students, and the similar question I’ve asked to a number of pedagogy researchers is “how do I respond to wrong answers without shutting students down?” I’ve gotten some technique suggestions, about making sure to say “I see where you’re coming from” or “Nice thought”, or putting the answer to the room for additional commentary before you come in from on high and pronounce their answer incorrect. Some of these technique suggestions have been better than others, but none of them have really addressed the problem I actually have–no matter what words I say, the students can tell that it means they’re wrong, and hear the tone of my voice, and feel, to varying degrees, publicly shamed. In my experience, every time, they’ve seen through my attempts to be encouraging by saying the right words.
I, too, am a young person afraid of failure, riddled with impostor syndrome, still fighting my impulses to act like I already know everything so no one else will question my right to be in the room. I have a hard time accepting challenges to my intellectual statements, no matter how minor, gracefully. I would like for my students to believe that failure is a part of the learning process, and that their contributions–even incorrect contributions–are valued because the whole room has the chance to learn from them when they are shared. I would like for them to understand that they are always going to fail sometimes and it is best to practice when the stakes are low. I would like my students to learn a lot of lessons that I’m still learning myself.
This is where I find myself: I want my students to feel free to ask questions, to be active participants in their learning, and to think for themselves. I don’t think that this is truly possible for every student if they only feel comfortable speaking up when they’re already sure that they’re right. It is my job, as their teacher, to foster a learning environment where it is okay to try things and be wrong. My students have to understand that wrong answers themselves are an integral part of the learning process, and not just less valuable versions of right answers. I am an extremely bad actor, so the conclusion I keep coming back to is that I need to really believe in the value of students speaking up with wrong answers in order to accept them graciously. (This is not a conclusion many pedagogy researchers I’ve talked to have been swayed by, but it is one I keep coming back to for myself nonetheless.)
As I said, this is a lesson I’m still struggling to learn in my own life outside of the classroom, and the likely-easiest solution–to admit to my students that I too am afraid of failure even though I believe it has valuable things to teach us–still involves admitting that I don’t have it all figured out. I’m open to advice, and happy to hear technical suggestions, but at the end of the day I think this is a part of myself I can’t selectively turn off when I’m in the classroom–I need to tackle my aversion to failure in all parts of my life. In the meantime, maybe the best thing I can do is be aware of it and catch myself when I’m imparting those same messages to my students. Or–horror of horrors–be honest about my goals and where I’m struggling with them.