Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Art of Teaching

After twenty-seven years in education, I thought I was pretty knowledgeable about working in a classroom. And though I headed into fall semester teaching at the college level with some degree of trepidation, I didn't doubt my ability to deliver information. And nearly a full semester later, I still don't.

But not surprisingly, this semester has taught me a few things as well. How to use the projector that connects to my laptop so that my Keynote slides project onto the screen. How use the college email system and upload information so that my students can access it on their computers. How to send quizzes remotely to the print shop so they're ready when I need them.

But these are practical, everyday things. The most important things I've learned have to do with the art of teaching.
Reaching out to college students is dramatically different from reaching out to elementary school students. While elementary school students are all about nurturing, college students are all about independence, and by the time a new professor makes a connection, the semester is half gone.

In my class of 29 students, more than 25 are education majors -- students preparing to enter the field I just left. Jobs are scarce, and scoring one will be, for some, a Pyrrhic victory as idealism slams into the realities of teaching in the twenty-first century.

So, while I want my students to learn the subject matter in my class (an elective), I also want them to be prepared. I set my standards high and kept them there. And some of my students are struggling.

It would be easy to just shrug and place the responsibility entirely on them. They are, after all, on the cusp of entering the real world.

It would also be easy to lower my standards -- to consider that I might be expecting too much -- but I think that does them a disservice.

There is an art to achieving student success. Despite legislation to the contrary, all students do not learn in the same way, nor do they demonstrate their knowledge in the same way. Some of my students write beautifully or give insightful answers in class, but consistently fail to make the correct choices on multiple choice quizzes.

It's my responsibility as their instructor to give them a variety of avenues through which they can demonstrate their mastery of the information -- and to show them that this is a viable option.

When I laid out the syllabus for the semester, I thought I had planned diverse assessments, but as the semester progressed, I discovered that more options were needed. And so, throughout the semester, I made changes.

At first, I worried that this made me look as though I didn't know what I was doing. And while I'm sure it does look that way to some of my students, I would much rather be flexible and meet their needs than be rigid and watch them fail. And since I am teaching tomorrow's teachers, I think it's important to let them see that blind adherence to standards is not always the only option.

Along the way, I've also made some odd observations. Rainy days are tough, and rainy Thursdays are tougher. If I give them a quiz on a rainy Thursday, they are lost to me for the rest of class.

And so it is always about two things: reaching them (which is especially tough on a rainy Thursday) and keeping in mind what it is I want them to learn. I don't want them to memorize concepts and spit them back to me -- though I know this is as far as some will come. I want them to understand how the subject matter relates to their future as teachers and, maybe someday, parents. I want them to grasp not just the concept of child development, but its importance because I know from bitter experience that preserving the childhood that enhances development is an enormous struggle in a profession focused on one test score.
I don't expect them to love every class, every concept or every theorist, and I don't expect them all to like me. But I want them to walk away with the notion of what childhood should look like so that they can -- against all odds -- preserve it in their little corner of the world as teachers and as parents.

Is that too much to ask?

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