Teaching as Self-discovery

One of my favorite teachers told me years ago that teaching was a chance for you to reinforce material you have come across before, to solidify previous knowledge, to assign readings that you yourself have wanted to read. This way, the teacher is understood as a student who learns alongside his or her students. Teaching was thus a process of self-learning, self-discovery. Does this seem counter-intuitive? Are we not supposed to “know” our material before teaching it? Well, yes and no, it seems. We “know” enough to garner the respect of our students, that they acknowledge that the teacher knows more than them. But we certainly don’t know our disciplines as much as we feel we aught to, thus making sense of Einstein’s pithy statement “The more we know, the less we know”.

Sarah Deel’s “Finding my Teaching Voice” was a poignant personal narrative of her own journey towards finding her own voice as a teacher. She ultimately discovers that by discovering her ‘teaching voice’ she herself was ‘liberated’. This was not the feeling I had teaching for the first time at VTech. I recently taught my first undergraduate course last week. I have spent the semester watching other teachers and taking mental notes on where they are succeeding and where I need to do better. Yet when the moment came, I found myself giving a 1 hr and 15 minute powerpoint presentation — with an 11 minute movie clip — because giving presentations was what I knew as a student. It was where “my voice was”; but I didn’t feel liberated as Deel did, I felt ‘stuck’ in the mode of presentation. I later realized that while I did a reasonably good job at asking the students questions and getting them to respond, I did not really “teach” the material; I simply gave a presentation of the material. The next class, I watched how the professor “taught” the class. She didn’t speak for more than 15 minutes, breaking up the class into group discussions, journal entries and a debate. She taught, I presented; and she did it with a lot less stress! Fowler’s advice rang true and clear “Teaching is not all about the teacher; that is, teaching is not all about you”. Instead, the professor was what Fowler calls a “guide” and “facilitator”.

The professor who watched me later said that I shouldn’t beat myself up too much, that I did very good for my first time, and that “you looked very comfortable up there! If you have managed to get that out of the way already, you are on a great start”. While I was happy to hear positive reinforcement from the professor, I still felt deficient in something. But one thing rang true: I had to be myself. Teaching forces you to open up and take a risk in being yourself. There is almost no other way to do it. You figure it out very quickly in front of your students.

One important nugget I took from Deel regarding successful teachers:

“They [the teachers] explained their strategies to their students. The context of the particular classroom was very important; since the students in each class understood their teacher’s philosophy and evaluation style, they were able to learn from the teacher’s responses to their writing.”

Quickly: Fowler’s “Authentic Teaching Self” was remarkably useful and terse. This type of nuts and bolts approach to providing quick advice to aspiring teachers works like an effective tool-kit that repairs minor damages. I particularly appreciated the “physical aspects” section where teachers are advised to ‘warm up’ their body and mind prior to teaching. I do precisely the types of strategies she mentioned in order to remove nerves. It actually works! Warming up the vocal box is useful too.

There are a lot of different ideas floating in this piece. Apologies for the obvious disorientation in this post. I’d appreciate thoughts/reflections on something/anything here.

5 thoughts on “Teaching as Self-discovery”

  1. Thanks for sharing,

    I appreciate your “disorientation.” I think it makes a lot of sense. I do think that teaching is a process of self-discovery, and the only way to start it is by doing it. The fact that you are very aware about your own process will make a huge difference. It’s not easy to reflect and be self-critic of your own practices, therefore I think you will only improve from here. Also, keep in mind that it’s not easy to break the traditional system, we have been taught under this format for so many years, changing it is very scary, but also very rewarding.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Thanks for your post! I really liked your comparison of teaching and presenting. When I taught, I also found myself talking at my students for the entire class. And there were a lot of blank faces staring back at me. One thing that I would do was just try different things, different activities, different ways to engage students. For example, one lecture I gave was on decision matrices. So I had students make paper airplanes and then we used a decision matrix to determine the “winning” paper airplane based on criteria that they specified at the beginning of class. It was really fun and way better than just talking about the concept. And while some things worked really well, other things did not work at all. But I learned a lot about what works for me in the process.

    1. That is very creative to use paper airplanes as a way to discuss decision matrix theory! Goodness, how did you think of that? Fantastic, absolutely brilliant. It is precisely these type of imaginations and talents that we teachers need to bring out a few times a semester, just to keep things fun. Awesome Amy.

  3. I liked what you said about conceptualizing the teacher as a fellow student. Any educational interaction should ideally benefit all parties involved and teachers certainly have plenty they of learning they can do alongside their students. I also think you’re professor was right about the importance of simply feeling comfortable. It gives you the confidence to lecture when you need to but also the willingness to let the class carry on the discussion among themselves.

    Congratulations on teaching your first class as well.

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