It May Not Win on American Idol, But It Works For Me

When it came to finding an “authentic teaching voice,” I was a slow learner. Although I entered the secondary classroom with a teaching certification (and, therefore, some education courses) under my belt, I had no idea how to set up a classroom or how to establish classroom routines. This led to a greater than desirable level of anarchy in the classroom to which I responded with a greater than desirable level of despotism. Needless to say, I was not having fun and neither were my students. In the same spirit that I declared I would never go through childbirth again after the birth of my first child, I took my GRE’s during the spring of my first year of teaching in preparation for graduate school. I ended up having two more children and teaching for 30 years.

 

When I first started teaching, I thought that teaching was about knowledge delivery. I would lecture, give students homework, go over homework, and do a few labs. Although I asked my students to tell me about their lives, I did not share much about my own life and did not think that this mattered. In my second year, I decided that teaching was about helping students structure and build knowledge. I began to create activities that allowed my students to explore the natural world and to answer questions with more questions. It was not until many years into my teaching practice, however, that I finally understood that teaching is also about relationships. One year I stood in front of my class and told my students how much they meant to me–that they were the reason that I looked forward to coming to school each day. (I got quite a few hugs that day.) I thought that they knew, but saying this made so much difference in my classroom.

Teaching and learning are, for me, a discourse between me and my students that involves trust, respect, and caring. I have learned to be explicit about both my classroom practices and how I feel about my students. Fortunately for me, I like people and tend to find the good in most of my fellow humans. When teaching physics, I explain to my students how physics will change the way that they see the world and give them a set of tools to understand the physical universe. I tell them that I love teaching physics and that I love working with students. All of this happens on the first day. At subsequent meetings I am always certain to greet as many students individually as I can as they enter the classroom and I try to learn student’s names as quickly as I can. I also explain that I will not give them busy work and that most people learn physics through practice and discourse. I make sure to give students opportunities to discuss ideas and to act as experts for each other when appropriate—in other words, when one student understands what another does not. I explain the purpose of each assignment and how each one relates to what we are studying. I tell them they are doing well when they are and help them figure out what they need to work on when they are not. I also continually help students relate new topics to old topics so that they can practice thinking like a physicist. Finally, I say, “I don’t know,” when I don’t.

 

In conclusion, my current “authentic teaching voice” is honest, audibly curious, and openly enthusiastic about teaching and interacting with my students. I try to use my voice to incite civility and reason. (Okay, I stole that from the Coffee Party. I really do try to promote civility and reason in building a classroom community, however.) My voice is explicit about the purpose of learning activities and invites questions and insights. I keep my voice quiet sometimes (I know that may be hard to believe!) so that I can hear my student’s voices as they work out their own answers and questions. I have found that when I allow myself to be all of these things, both my students and I enjoy coming to class and learning happens for all of us. We also have fun!