Recently, I was given the opportunity to help lead an advanced poetry workshop here at Tech. My adviser wanted to divide his class into two groups, and he wondered if any of his graduate students wanted to lead the other group. I love teaching (I really do) and I’m often up for a challenge, so I accepted the invitation to help out. Before I could launch into leading half the class, the professor wanted me to come to a class session to observe, both so that I could familiarize myself with the class and its methods and also so the students could learn who I was. As I was sitting in the circle of students listening to their poetry and their comments on the work of others, I found myself thoroughly impressed. Some of these undergraduate writers were just as strong as graduate-level poets! As this realization sunk in, so did a feeling in the pit of my stomach – what if some of these students are better at this than I am? How can I possibly be expected to help them or teach them anything when they are just as or, gulp, more talented? Are my students going to be smarter than I am???
After the anxiety died down, I realized that, yes, inevitably, if I teach long enough, I will encounter many students who are just as smart or smarter than I am. But what I also realized is that it really doesn’t matter. Just because a student might have knowledge or a knack that comes more easily to them than it did or does to me doesn’t mean that I have nothing to offer. I have experience, years of practice, and teaching skills under my belt, all pieces that are unique to me that I can offer to the students in the class. Furthermore, it’s a part of my teaching philosophy that students should be teaching the rest of the class – and that includes me – while also learning throughout the course. So it’s okay (actually, it’s preferable) that students have elements to offer that seem “better” in some instances than what I could provide because it makes the class richer for the both of us and for everyone else sitting in the room.
I led the workshop by myself for the first time on Monday, and things went rather well. The students had engaging and important things to say, and so did I. I hope to continue to mine the riches that the students bring to the table by guiding them to realize the worth that they possess and to share it with the rest of us privileged enough to sit alongside them.
Several weeks ago, my brother’s fiancee pointed me in the direction of a segment on NPR’s All Things Considered that discusses the efficacy of the lecture as a means for student learning. Physics professors at Harvard have dramatically altered their pedagogical strategies in an introductory physics class, away from lecture and more toward student discovery and experiential learning.
As the article reports, the results have been quite promising. As a product of a fairly conventional educational system, I, too, often was taught through lecture, especially in introductory level courses. However, the classes in which I learned the most forced me to take ownership of my own learning. It seems as though this experiment in teaching does just that as it asks students to make guesses, potentially make mistakes, and figure out why the correct answer is, in fact, correct.
It’s funny because I think that most people seem to hold on to the belief that it’s good enough to simply speak the information to students in order for them to understand even though very few of us learn the most effectively that way. I have always suspected that the lecture holds strong not because it works best and not even just because it’s the way we were all taught, but mostly because it’s the simplest way for the teacher to prepare. It’s much easier to spit out facts and generate basic lecture notes than it is to create learning activities that will be meaningful for students and address the same information. Perhaps it’s time that we all begin admitting that what’s easiest for the professor might actually be worst for the students. I’m not suggesting (nor does the article, I don’t think) ridding of the lecture entirely, but instead determining those moments when lecture would not provide the most meaningful learning experience possible.
Going back to school taught me that I’m a teacher. As the proverbial “they” often say, when you find a profession suited to you, a calling of sorts, you’ll just know it. For me, I wouldn’t say it was quite that easy. Teaching is a difficult profession. I often refer to my first year of high school teaching as “the time of darkness” because of how often I found myself at the end of my fuse, out of energy, confidence, and, oftentimes, health. I sometimes wondered if I were cut out for teaching, if it truly were something that I was “meant” to do. Even after that first year, I met many challenges throughout my teaching. In fact, I didn’t meet my most challenging students until I was into my fourth year as a teacher. However, I still loved stepping in front of my students each day, and I found myself caring about the lives and learning of even my most difficult students.
Then, I decided to further my own education by going to graduate school, taking the role as student for the first time since I’d started my teaching career. Luckily, I was also fortunate enough to earn a spot in a master’s program that allowed me to be a GTA throughout my years of study. That’s right – I was going to get to be teacher AND student! Transitioning back to the role of student was exciting and empowering, so much so that I worried I would lose some of my teaching spark. I even wondered if I would resent teaching as an obligation that stole away time from my own academic pursuits. Yet, I quickly found that when I stepped in front of my freshman composition students, that same love of teaching emerged. Even when I was stressed out about my own work, helping my students with theirs invigorated me. Indeed, speaking and reading with my students each semester has helped my own writing in ways that I wouldn’t have guessed, showing me in a direct way what I suspected all along – that I learn from my students as often as they learn from me. They help me to grow in ways that I could never grow on my own, and they help me do things that I couldn’t do by myself. Thus, I can’t imagine my life without teaching or, I should say, without learning, because I just can’t help myself – I want to help them, and they give that help back in spades.