The piece by Sarah Deel, “Finding My Teaching Voice,” and the idea of our authentic teaching selves resonated with a blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago for my co-teaching independent study (I am co-teaching a sophomore-level hydrology course with my advisor this semester). I also reference a humorous article from The Chronicle of Higher Education called, “Desperate to be Liked,” which I think is relevant for this subject as well. The syllabus we devised for the independent study includes teaching a portion of the classes and, among other components, faculty observation. I shadow my advisor on the days I am not leading the class, but we also thought it would be a good idea to observe other professors as well, particularly those I would not necessarily have as an instructor otherwise. At first, I wondered if I would get anything out of this practice: is there really any use sitting in on more classes at this point in my program? So far, I have shadowed two professors in addition to my advisor and highly recommend this exercise to others interested in teaching. The readings this week made me think of the first professor I observed, who teaches an upper-level course in forestry. When my advisor mentioned him, he said something along the lines of “I don’t really get it, but students absolutely love him.” The professor definitely deviates from the master of pedagogy most of us might imagine. He comes across as fairly “old school” when it comes to teaching, and his examples and problems are real-world scenarios students might encounter in a future job. His PowerPoints are not full of animations, pictures, or YouTube videos. He speaks slowly. I doubt that he listens to Morning Edition on NPR. I also doubt that he blogs about it. Do the bored youth of our university cradling their smart phones actually like this guy? Yes, they certainly do, and within minutes of being in his class I understood why. He is extremely friendly, which makes him approachable. Being near retirement, he is exceptionally knowledgeable about the subject matter. His real-world examples strike a chord with students that realize they might need to use a concept from his class one day. I wrote in my other blog about how his voice caught my attention. I always assumed that in order to show enthusiasm and passion for a class, I must speak excitedly, waving my arms about, and shouting like an aerobics instructor. This professor speaks slowly and even quietly (although audibly), which actually has an extremely calming effect and also makes it easier for the students to follow when he works through problems or equations on the board. And he makes eye contact with everyone in the room, searching for confused looks or questions.
After observing his class, I began to think more about what makes a great teacher that inspires students. I reflected on my favorite teachers over the years, and while there are common threads (they were accessible, cared about the students, set clear expectations, etc.), for the most part, they are totally different from one another. In some cases, the teacher of the best class you will ever take may refuse to give tests and encourage everyone to play video games. Another teacher of an equally life-changing class may do the exact opposite. I realized that there is no one way to be a good teacher. We should take advantage of the latest pedagogical research to improve student learning by trying out non-traditional techniques and branching out from what has always been done. However, phenomenal teachers do not, by definition, need to follow each and every accepted convention in either direction (old school versus contemporary) but rather figure out what methods make them (and not necessarily someone else) the best and most effective instructor possible. I like the idea of finding our authentic teaching selves, which I would just call being genuine. We must continually work to modify courses and step up the quality of our teaching, but we should always start with being ourselves. And, in honor of being yourself….
To answer the blog prompt, what is my authentic teaching self? To follow the logic of “being yourself,” I guess I will start by describing myself in general. I am Type A, extremely organized, and detail-oriented. I can also be impatient. I have a dry sense of humor but enjoy humor and laughing in general; as a result, I often make fun of and laugh at myself. I enjoy spending time outside and am terrified at the thought of people being disconnected from the natural world (the most common question I was asked as a raft guide by rafting guests, mostly adults, is why the river does not go in a circle: “We can’t get out here, we’re not to where we put in yet!”), which I think is a veritable problem (it’s like, yeah, of course these people don’t believe in climate change). Despite coming across as an insane tree-hugger, I tend to promote moderation in most things. So, you know, lectures are cool, but not every day, all the time, and they should be high-quality (so, not reading off of slides). Class discussions and hands-on activities are also fine, but, depending on the course, maybe not every day, all the time, and some structure or prompts to the activity can help guide students in that regard. Tests should not ruin people’s lives or stand as a metric of their overall intelligence (other personal life story and aside, I was a lift operator at a ski resort, and–stemming from suggestions in class last week–to anyone that scoffs at mechanical/blue collar knowledge, running a chair lift, in terms of the machine itself, requires more intelligence, hands down, than a Bachelor’s degree, not even a point of discussion. Want to see people with problem-solving skills? Watch your car mechanic after providing the helpful diagnosis: “Yeah, it makes a noise sometimes.”). However, we should not totally overlook tests and other assessments as a learning tool and, additionally, as a source of feedback on our teaching. Technology is the key to solving many of the current problems we face, but let’s not stare at screens all day–it’s really bad for you. Go play outside, so you don’t ever get confused about rivers going in circles (or mountains and hills just being “really tall trees,” another common question from adult rafting guests that do not understand the concept of topography). Let’s allow our students to enjoy being nineteen or twenty years old and learning for the pure joy of learning, but we should also realize that jobs can bring people fulfillment (e.g. my friend wanted to be a doctor so that she could help people; Monica on Friends becomes a chef because she loves cooking, etc.), so we can permit them to think about future career paths without lamenting the death grip of capitalism. My authentic teaching self is some reflection of all of the above, for better or worse.