Sarah Deel gets me, she really gets me.

I’ve been asked what I teach, how I teach it, what my teaching philosophy is, but I’ve never been asked, “What kind of teacher are you?”

I’m “self-reflective,” “passionate,” “dedicated” and “nerd-funny.”

I can’t express the number of ways Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” resonated with me (Seriously, we’d have so much to talk about). I, too, am from a small liberal arts college. The largest classrooms I’ve ever been in (either as a teacher or a student) was this past fall as a GTA for RLCL Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There were 70 students. This semester, at 40, I am teacher of record for the second largest lass I’ve ever experienced.

When I first started teaching in 2008, like Deel, I looked to the professors that I loved most, but many of those professors were sages on the stage. Their lectures were powerful, interesting and insightful, but I knew that I am atypical in that I learn well listening to a lecturer. I’m happy to curl up and read for hours or listen to a long podcast. Most people don’t learn like that anymore. Fortunately, I started out teaching Freshman Composition, which lends itself to group projects, collaborative writing and discussions. I was cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked before for me.

The challenge I face this semester in HUM 1324 is finding a way to navigate the space. It is a small classroom in McBryde with 40 students crammed into rows with aisles so narrow they have to navigate them sideways. There is no room to circle into groups, no room to make a large circle that I can join in for discussions, and the impact is apparent. This has been one of the hardest classes I’ve had to facilitate discussions. And, honestly, facilitating discussions is my strongest suite as a teacher — asking the right questions, waiting patiently for responses, teasing out a student’s point when they’ve rambled, noticing when a student wants to say something and needs the encouragement of being called on.

The space is also challenging for me when I lecture. There is a giant lectern beside a table where computers are connected to the projects beside a shorter full-sided desk.  When the projector is on, I have a path behind the lectern that is about three feet wide to move in or else I’m blocking the power point. And there is no room for a path between all the furniture and the desks for me to come out and walk in front. It is challenging. Generally, moving around helps me feel stronger and more in control, and it keep my voice upbeat and strong. (*I have a tendency to have a weak voice, more about that later.)

So, most classes I have a short lecture, we might listen to a podcast or watch a short video, maybe there will be a short group assignment (with them working only with those they sit beside, and then some discussion). It is working, but it isn’t working really, really, well. I’ve been considering places I can take my class outside on beautiful days, which I hope will help better facilitate the discussion portion of the class.

*I want to mention vocal health because it is something I find really helpful. I’ve always felt like my voice was really weak, maybe too high to be taken seriously. So, I often speak in a lower-than-natural register when I’m teaching or public speaking. In the past when I was teaching three courses, working a job where I was talking to (interviewing) people, I found that just an additional long phone conversation could make me completely lose my voice. Last summer I talked to my brother about his. He’s the Director of Choral Studies at University of Louisiana and is the vocal health guru. He pointed out that when I drop to a lower register, my sentences often trailed off into vocal fry, which is very stressful and bad for your vocal chords. It was that strain that made me lose my voice so often. (There’s a lot of say about vocal fry and gender i.e. why so many women have it and are hated for it, but that’s an entirely different can of worms.) So, I’d inadvertently trained myself to speak in a way that was harmful to my vocal health. It has become so ingrained that I have to consciously speak in my normal register…and it’s been a journey of accepting my natural voice and asserting authority and confidence in my natural higher, more feminine register. #NoMoreVocalFry #AuthenticVoice

10 Comments

Filed under Contemporary Pedagogy GEDI Spring 2018

10 Responses to Sarah Deel gets me, she really gets me.

  1. Chris

    At the other end of the spectrum, I have a small lab that I teach entirely outdoors. We walk around campus and learn to identify woody landscape plants. Would you care to meet in the middle with your same space? Teaching outside has it’s own set of problems, but they mostly stem from not having control of the environment. I feel like I switch between being a sheep dog and a mother duck. I have to herd the students around the plants. As we walk between plants, they follow behind me like little ducklings. As we talk about the plants, it’s hard to know if they are paying attention or being distracted by something nearby. I’m really focused in on the plant and not looking at the students. Then they see their friends and get all chatty. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m terrified of someone yelling out answers to quiz plants. Maybe the summation of it all is that there is no ideal teaching space? Even the classroom we are in with all the monitors everywhere has issues.

  2. Amy Hermundstad Nave

    I really enjoyed your post! I would love to hear more about your experience teaching Freshman Comp and being “cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked.” That is such a great description of teaching sometimes. And you bring up a really great point about the impact that the environment has. It can be so hard to engage a class when everyone is forced to cram into rows all facing the same direction. Are there other things that you have found that have helped in that situation where you have less control over the environment? Thanks for the post!

  3. I love your way of describing the process of finding your authentic self, “I was cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked…”. This is great and I feel like you probably never stop getting ‘thrown out to sea’ – with the introduction of new technologies for the classroom and continual evidence supporting effective teaching methods.

  4. Oh Sarah — I’ve taught in that room in McBryde and feel your pain! It sounds to me like you are doing a terrific job of responding to a challenging set of classroom conditions. The only other tip I have would be to think about a way to get the class to engage outside of the classroom (on a discussion board, or doc or something) so that they come in already engaged and ready to roll (so the crowded aisles and dismal lighting are less significant?). And yes, take them outside when you can (but Chris also makes a good point about the opportunities for distraction go way up!).
    But what I really wanted to say (!?!?) is that I appreciate your reflection on how your own experience as a student has informed the way you approach your teaching, and how committed you are to figuring out a mode of engagement that honors your authentic teaching self and the individual learning experiences of your students. They are lucky to have you!

  5. Ernesto Acosta

    I will add to your comments about class size. I found an article that mentions teaching methods differ by class size. “According to students, instructors in small and medium classes are more likely to involve students in hands-on projects and real-life activities, assign projects that require original or creative thinking, form teams or discussion groups to facilitate learning, and ask students to help each other understand concepts or ideas. Perhaps most troubling is that students in large and very large classes report the instructor is less likely to inspire them to set and achieve goals that really challenge them” (Benton & Pallett, 2013). I think student input should be sought when considering the size of future classes.

    Benton, S.L. & Pallett, W.H. (2013, January 29). Class Size Matters. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/01/29/essay-importance-class-size-higher-education

  6. Shaun Respess

    Great post, and I am sorry to hear about your challenges pertaining to your voice. It definitely appears to be a struggle for many teachers, new or seasoned. The space can be a really challenging obstacle for many of us, even when we do feel comfortable with our “authentic voice.” My classroom is set up similarly, and it does take away quite a bit from their experience. I hate to be the one to say, “adapt and work with what you have”, but until universities provide us with a better opportunity, I am at a loss for suggestions. Students desire better and we as instructors desire better. Hopefully the supply will meet the demand moving forward…

  7. Interesting take! I think what I’ve come to find, particularly after reading your post, that effective teaching comes with both experience and a sense of power (in a good way) and control in the classroom. However, as women we may have to try to make ourselves feel more “powerful.” What you mentioned about voice tone is interesting, and something I’ve thought about before. When I’m conversing with someone I tend to use a higher register because I’m trying to be polite and perhaps even a bit submissive – recently, I’ve wanted to work on changing my tone to convey more confidence. I want to come off as the in-control teacher, not the apologetic graduate student. Why do we have to think about these things that seem to come so naturally to men? It truly is better to accept and grow into your own teaching self – but, as we know, that is easier said than done.

  8. Robert H

    Thank you for this Sarah. I agree that Deel provides great insight and guidance towards finding your own path in teaching. It is very important to take students and the environment into consideration when engaging in a pedagogical approach. I get Deel and I feel she gets me in this writing.

  9. nordicgod

    Good afternoon Sarah,

    Really good stuff here! I had an instant visual of your classroom setting with the students only able to work with their neighbors and having to shimmy down the isle sideways! LOL! The physical environment we know affects learning and retention rates so it is a little sad to see you setup this way. I’m glad that you have found ways to change things up and get creative!

    Thanks!

    Cheers, Lehi

  10. psalmonsblog

    I think we all have these relatable experiences that tell us more about one another. I think in this regard, having a support structure available is extremely important in our profession. But man I get tired of the students and their incessant whining about the terms being difficult. This is because I give them videos I provide them with examples, I make them read. But hey if they don’t want to put in the effort I am not going pick up their slack. We can’t save every student is what I am learning more and more, it is not me but a bit of them and me mixed together. I try and I agree finding our voice is difficult, but what about the students who don’t want to find their own?

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