My First Year Teaching (Part 2) – A Few Early (Hard-Earned) Lessons

After reflecting a bit on joining a faculty and thinking about myself as a scholar (I am still getting used to that) I began to think about what I have begun to learn about myself as a teacher and teaching more generally. Below I have sketched out 5 basic things that I have learned about teaching and about myself as a teacher in my first year so far. These are by no means authoritative, but more reflections about what I am beginning to understand about teaching. They are probably in books somewhere but I am not sure any book can quite prepare you for fear that strikes you when you stand before the 40 twenty year olds and realize the 50 minute lecture you took two days to prepare is not going to inspire a bulge in theology majors, or your carefully crafted discussion questions sink into an abyss of silence and there you are left with 20 minutes of class time and nothing left to do or say.

So, here are a few thoughts and please share any comments or additional ideas below!

1) I have authority. Being the student for so long, under the tuteledge of older wiser, more well read professors I was one who was learning and I often deferred to their knowledge, I kept quiet to wait to see what they would say, I often wouldn’t offer an opinion out of respect for their knowledge. Beginning teaching I didn’t realize that I was the older, more well-read, authority in the classroom, but even more so. It would require extra effort to cultivate an environment where student’s felt free to ask questions, to discuss. My power did not lay in my knowledge but in the environment I created. What this meant for me initially was creating moments where I was not the authority. Small groups worked best for this as students were much more willing to offer opinions to one another than to me. What I have come to realize that I need to be very careful in how I wield my authority and what I know. Students are savvy listeners and are more often than not taking in a lot more than what I am saying. They are responding to my tone, my demeanor, and mostly how I interact with the few questions that are courageously offered.

2) Bored faces are not unthinking students.  The students immediate response is not a measure of their enthusiasm or like/dislike of the course. It took me a while to understand that the sleepy faces I faced in the morning in afternoon were hiding a great deal of thinking, processing, and reflecting. In my first classes I took this for granted and augmented my class with the idea that they were not listening rather than with the aim of deepening or making visible what they were thinking about.

3)  Less is more. It’s cliche, but its true. The classes where I spent hours carefully crafting a lecture landed with a great thud. Conversely, classes I threw together with a picture, three main points, and two passages from the readings, and a handful of questions for class discussion  more often resulted in a much more dynamic class session that students pointed back to in papers and exams. Ironically, my evaluations pointed to the early period of the classes (the ones I spent hours laboring over lectures) as the least focused and difficult to understand while the latter sessions were cited as the most focused and clear.

4) I have to find my own way. In the midst of many wonderful teachers at my institution I had to find my own way, my own style and voice. Some things work for others and different things may work for me. This doesn’t mean I don’t ask. No, I am constantly asking folks how they do a, b, or c. But I don’t take these as rules. They are examples of ways to approach students. Every discipline (and even course within a discipline) has different objectives, different material, different skills that it is seeking to cultivate. I came to realize that what works for the Scripture professor is effective because there are dates to be learned, authors to be memorized, themes to be applied. Some of the methods needed for teaching Scripture effectively could be applied to my theology courses, but not all of them. It took me some time, but I am beginning to find a way that I feel is both conducive to student learning as well as suitable to my own gifts and my subject material.

5) Don’t underestimate the power of the small group. Again, this is a little cliche, but in every class I have taught so far the large groups were simply a sea of disregard (although not really… see #2). But when I met with students in smaller groups of 5-6 I found their level of interest and inquisitiveness to be really wonderful. Those small interactions translated into more engagement in the larger class discussions and lectures creating a much more dynamic learning environment overall. What I came to realize was that larger class settings have a wide set of dynamics going on that I am not aware of. There are students who had a bad experience in their previous theology course, a fellow student is a “know-it-all” whom everyone is just waiting to dominate the conversation, or any other seemingly mundane fact. I was always aware of the need to cultivate a certain culture within a classroom, but I did not imagine all of the factors at play especially in an undergraduate classroom. Small groups allowed me to look each student in the eye, learn their names, hear their particular questions. It was only after this (regrettably 7 weeks into a 10 week quarter) that I found the students begin to engage the class material in a different way. In my new quarter I deliberately found ways to incorporate small groups that I could sit in on early in the quarter and I have found the students to be much more willing to ask questions early on.

So those are a few lessons I have learned early on. I am sure these were in a book on teaching somewhere, but even then I am not sure I would have been ready for standing in front of 40 students with varying levels of interest and motivation. These are a few ways of approaching undergraduate teaching that have helped me so far. I am sure I will learn more in the coming years but I am glad to have at least learned something before the year is out.

For those of you who teach (or have had wonderful experiences with teachers) what are some of the biggest challenges you face as teachers? How have you learned to address them in your experience?

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2 thoughts on “My First Year Teaching (Part 2) – A Few Early (Hard-Earned) Lessons

  1. There is a strong correlation between preaching and teaching, as far as item #2 goes. It was hard for me to get past all of the stoic or (worse!) frowning faces in the pews, to realize finally that those were just my parishioners “deep-thought” faces.

  2. Great post.

    Two of your points really stand out to me.

    1. Authority – I found this part to be very humbling. Especially when someone says years later, “I remember when you said…” Fear strikes me and I think to myself “man I hope I said something good or something I still actually agree with.”

    2. Bored Faces – man that is a hard one to deal with. Problem is, that it is hard to tell what the face is saying. Some of the brightest in the bunch can be doing stuff online and/or laughing with a classmate, yet still recite word for word what you just said. Others can take notes and give you a manuscript, and not know anything of what you are talking about. I hate trying to assess this intangible part of teaching.

    Another addition I would like to submit is that of teaching “scales.” No musician likes to learn or practice scales, but the best of the best probably do more scales than anyone. Most quit before they ever get to learn real songs because scales are boring.

    I think a lot of teaching is like teaching mundane scales that lay a solid foundation to, in time, play some pretty decent music. Problem for me is that as both student and teacher, I just want to jam.

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