Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:
The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.
Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.
Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?
Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS! We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.
We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.
For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin- our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.
We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!
I gravitate towards all things writing, especially the how and why. A rather excellent blog, Brain Pickings, often has very insightful posts on a broad range of topics, mainly creativity, arts and science, and words of wisdom for the masters who came before us. The truth is, you never know what they will send you, but it is always superbly written and insightful. Plus, they always have the coolest images breaking up their text, and they know how to direct your attention from words to images and back to words in a seamless style. They aren’t afraid to mix up the modalities, and it makes for good reading/viewing/listening.
This morning I had a chance to read their latest newsletter and the feature article, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Science and Philosophy Can Teach Us About the Holy Grail of Existence, by Maria Popova. You can read the piece for yourself, but what stuck with me most was the last line:
“When fishing for happiness, catch and release.” – Shimon Edelman. Very simple, right? When we find happiness, we should let everyone else around us experience it as well. I strongly recommend you read this entire post – it’s just a lovely way to start the day.
Nestled cozily within this brilliant morning read was this little gem: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/20/the-power-of-simple-words-ted-ed/
This brief snippet led to viewing this, a short 2-minute video on using simple words and knowing your audience:
For writing teachers, I think having students view this brief video is a great way to introduce rhetoric, and styles of writing. Often students confuse big words with good writing or sound argument. This video, which integrates contemporary culture to makes its point- “Ambulate this direction!”- is short but meaningful: we don’t always have to “sound smart” in order to leave a huge impression. Sometimes the simplest of phrases can capture national attention.
This re-blog asks the question of whether we should be “friending” our students in social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter.
This begs a really controversial and ambiguous question that most instructors ask themselves. I know many teachers who are friends with their students, without any seeming fallout from “two worlds colliding.” However, I also know many teachers who are adamantly opposed to “friending” students on Facebook or Twitter, because they fear and are skeptical of the intersection of the academic and personal worlds, for many different reasons. Where do you stand? Do you friend/follow, and why? Or why not?
Last week at our first Teaching Circle meeting of the semester, we focused on student expectations and failure. There are many sub-categories that fit these inter-connected topics: grading, attendance/absenteeism, why students don’t try harder, school policy versus individual instructor policy, why students resist change/innovation, and much more. We talked for nearly two hours about these central issues, and how they might be addressed in the classroom.
The biggest issue, and one coming under increasing public scrutiny, is student failure. This is a landmine issue for teachers, because, while we want to set high standards and clear expectations for our students, we also don’t want them to fail and some of us even dread the fallout emotional battle that comes with student failure. John Rosemond would say that we are experiencing the products of the “psychological parenting revolution” (which bled into our teaching methods) of the 1970’s and 80’s. This makes us afraid of hurting the feelings of our students, and by extension, afraid to let them fail. For related articles, read the below:
Are We Raising a Generation of Helpless Kids: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Mickey-goodman/are-we-raising-a-generati_b_1249706.html
Teaching Students to Fail Better: http://www.iste.org/learn/publications/learning-and-leading/issues/Feature_Teach_Your_Students_to_Fail_Better.aspx
Tales of Spectacular Failure: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/06/146880518/try-and-try-again-3-tales-of-spectacular-failure?sc=tw
Married to this idea of failure are grading policies and student absenteeism/attendance policies. Nostalgically we discussed our undergrad and graduate days, when attendance was not a requirement or only loosely monitored. Back then, if we wanted a good grade we had to make it to class, make sure we had the notes, or meet with our professor to get/turn in assignments, which were always set ahead of time by the syllabus. That is, our success or failure was totally in our hands. Now, student attendance has become connected with performance: just by showing up, to some instructors (and certainly in the minds of many students) counts as “effort.” Should we grade participation? In addition, the focus on engagement and group work requires that students be present to actually engage. Or does it? How might we engage students in and out of the classroom? Finally, university policies have changed such that they are more and more requiring that attendance be mandatory and that instructors revise their individual policies to reflect university mandates on attendance.
So we have many dynamics at play here: effort, attendance, student failure, and the various methods of considering all these factors when planning our courses. This, in addition to considering how we foster a creative, active, and engaging learning environment and address these, among myriad other, teaching and learning issues. Phew. Enough for you?
We turned our discussion to requiring attendance versus engaging students. Several instructors offered their personal policies on attendance: some don’t even take attendance and give it no reward or punishment, some have very strict attendance policies, some use a middle ground of points, percentages, and grade scales tied to attendance and participation. There is no perfect way, though we discussed how we might create a learning environment that students want to be part of, are compelled (intrinsically) to be there and thus help us put less emphasis on attendance and more on engagement. None of us wants to be the attendance police and spend class time checking off a list of names. We want our students to be there because they realize they need to know what we have to teach them. But we are frustrated and timid about not setting a specific policy for students to follow (what happens if they aren’t compelled to show up? Few of us have the confidence in ourselves and our students to be so hands-off concerning attendance).
There is no one way of doing this, but one professor talked about tying in-class assignments and scaffolding foundational content and concepts with performance expectations. He sets up assignments so that a student cannot move on to the next level without completing the prior level, and to do that, they must come to class. He gives them the defined milestones and a calendar to achieve them, assignments that move them through these levels of knowledge, assessed by conceptual tests, essays, and final projects. Though in some cases a student may try to “catch up” near the end of a unit and thus rush through material, in general he finds that students move through the material in concert and with enthusiasm. I speculated that in some cases it is the relationship with the instructor (trust, respect) that allows for looser “policies”; what works for one instructor may not work for another without building trust and respect.
We spent some time discussing innovation, ways we try to implement new scholarship on teaching practice and student learning, and of course, technology that can help us do that. We acknowledged that ofttimes students display a distrust of, and at times outright dislike, new ways of learning. This may be because they are used to performing and succeeding in a defined way - the lecture, taking Powerpoint notes, working in groups to complete a project - and when we ask them to think or learn in new ways, they are skeptical or resistant. I think this may be, as most teaching methods are and as I noted above, because of their trust in their instructor; we all know instructors that experiment all the time in their courses and are enthusiastically engaging their students, so why can’t we? So we segued to building trust in students: demonstrating that we know what we’re doing, setting expectations to that emphasize that it is okay to try something and have it bomb (even us teachers have failures!), that ultimately, we all want to continue learning. We talked about building in small successes and achievements that lead to bigger successes and investment of the student in reaching those goals. Ultimately, we were intrigued by the idea that we let our students experience failure in order to give success a more genuine sense of achievement on their part.
Part II of Teaching Circles Discussion Review
As I finished up my post on student failure, I remembered that amidst all of our discussion on attendance, setting expectations, letting students fail, and more, I forgot to talk about mid-term evaluations. Yes, we fit this in! In fact, we started our conversation talking about conducting mid-term evals in order to gauge where students were, whether they felt they were learning, and what suggestions they had for improving their learning. For those of you who have never performed a mid-term eval, it’s worth looking at why we do these and how they help us continually enhance our teaching and “check in” with our students’ learning.
Mid-term evaluations give us a chance to adjust our courses based on feedback from students on what’s working and what could be changed to help students learn - changing horses mid-stream, if you like metaphors. Coincidentally, one of my favorite teaching and learning blogs (ProfHacker, sponsored by the Chronicle of Higher Education) had a post about mid-term evals, as well as a promotion through a really excellent higher ed forum, POD. See below.
For those of you considering mid term evaluations, this is an excellent list of resources, combined with an idea of how to conduct evaluations collaboratively with your students, that is, invest them in the process.
We also offer this service through the Research Academy, called SGA’s. Go here to learn more: http://www.montclair.edu/academy/services/sga.html
Conducting Your Midterm Evaluations Publicly with Google Docs
Croxall uses GoogleDocs to have students collaboratively do a midterm evaluation answering two questions: “What is working well so far?” and “What could be done better?”
The post links to other ProfHacker entries on the same topic.
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Response Rates Reconsidered.” Innovate 2, no. 6 (2006). http://www.innovateonline.info/index.php?view=article&id=301 (accessed January 8, 2011).
Brinko, Kathleen T. “The Interactions of Teaching Improvement.” In Practically
Speaking: A Sourcebook for Instructional Consultants in Higher Education,3-8. Edited by Kathleen T. Brinko and Robert J. Menges. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1997.
Coffman, Sara Jane. “Small Group Instructional Evaluation Across the Disciplines.”
College Teaching 46, no. 3 (1998): 106-111.
Creed, Tom. “Small Group Instructional Diagnosis (SGID).” The National Teaching &
Learning Forum 6, no. 4 (1997). http://www.ntlf.com/html/pi/9705/sgid.htm (accessed December 12, 2010).
Diamond, Miriam R. “The Usefulness of Structured Mid-Term Feedback as a Catalyst
for Change in Higher Education Classes.” Active Learning in Higher Education 5, no. 3 (2004): 217-231.
Diamond, Nancy A. “Small Group Instructional Diagnosis: Tapping Student
Perceptions of Teaching.” In A Guide to Faculty Development: Practical Advice, Examples, and Resource, 82-91. Edited by Kay Herr Gillespie, Linda R. Hilsen, and Emily C. Wadsworth. Boston: Anker Press, 2002.
Lewis, Karron G. “The Process of Individual Consultation.” In A Guide to Faculty
Development: Practical Advice, Examples, and Resources, 59-73. Edited by Kay HerrGillespie, Linda R. Hilsen, and Emily C. Wadsworth. Boston: Anker Press. 2002. 59-73.
Penny, Angela R., and Robert Coe. “Effectiveness of Consultation on Student Ratings
Feedback: A Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 74, no. 2 (2004): 215-253.
Seldin, Peter. “Using Student Feedback to Improve Teaching.” To Improve the
Academy 16 (1997): 335-346.
Smuts, Bridget. “Using Class Interviews to Evaluate Teaching and Courses in Higher
Education.” SouthAfrican Journal of Higher Education 19, no. 5 (2005): 943-955.
Theall, Michael. “Student Ratings: Myths vs. Research Evidence.” Focus on Faculty
10, no. 3 (2002): 2-3. http://studentratings.byu.edu/info/faculty/myths.asp (accessed December 12 2010).
White, Ken. “Mid-Course Adjustments: Using Small Group Instructional Diagnoses
To Improve Teaching and Learning.” In Assessment in and of Collaborative Learning. Edited by The Washington Center’s EvaluationCommittee, Evergreen State University. http://www.evergreen.edu/washcenter/resources/acl/c4.html (accessed December 12, 2010).