I’m lucky to work with some wonderful teachers in my job. One of them, Brydget, runs all our first-year bio labs & is constantly looking for ways to improve the quality of what we offer in order to enhance the students’ learning experiences. (I am extremely envious of the fact that she’s the only person I know who routinely gets a perfect ‘1’ in students’ appraisals of her teaching.)
Anyway, Brydget recently wrote a piece on how she keeps her teaching fresh, for the University’s in-house teaching journal, & has very kindly allowed me to reproduce it here :-)
Anyone in academia realises that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. When I first started teaching I had plans of learning more about teaching, I envisioned myself understanding pedagogies and theories and thought I’d regularly read education journals. I was soon to realise that while it was a nice idea it was not going to happen. However, I was still determined to learn more about teaching. The biggest resource I was to learn was not the myriad of academic journals but my colleagues both within and external to my department.
Communication with others in the university has been the biggest factor in keeping my teaching fresh. Through participating in TDU seminars and the teaching network meetings I’ve been able to talk to teachers outside of my faculty. This has been invaluable. It opened my eyes to the fact that we become very entrenched in the way we do things. It’s always been that way so it must be right. Going through university right from the undergraduate level we become accustomed to a certain style of teaching and assessing, as students we accept that this is the norm. When all the papers are presented in a certain way it seems that must be the right way. And thus when moving roles from student to teacher it is unsurprising that we emulate the styles with which we were taught. As a new teacher, I knew no different, I had not been exposed to many different ideas.
Being able to converse with teachers from different disciplines opened a new world. At the TDU seminars I would hear what seemed like impossible ideas. What do you mean we should give them a marking schedule? Shouldn’t they have to work out the question, interpreting what I’m asking is all part of the mystery. The more I talked with others the more I realised that teaching has to evolve and sharing ideas is such a valuable tool.
Even within a discipline, the act of just talking with colleagues about what they are doing in the classroom can open you to new ideas. A simple conversation in the tea room, or attending the school teaching advocacy sessions allows for this exchange of ideas. We tend to think of teaching as something we do in isolation (even with 200 students watching us) but we need the feedback and advice of those around us if we hope to keep our teaching alive and avoid the tedium that can come with repetitive teaching. I am lucky that I teach in a role that allows me time to regularly talk to my students and from them I can gain feedback. In every class students are given an opportunity to write down comments through the use of a “feedback box”, in addition to being encouraged to post on moodle.
One of the natural ways I keep my teaching fresh is purely through identifying a need. In the first year of teaching it seems to be more about getting through (and hoping you don’t make a fool of yourself). Once you’ve made it through that year it is like you’ve passed this first test and you start to settle in to teaching. This is when I was able to change my focus and started identifying problem areas both in my teaching, and the courses I taught in general. Any good teacher is going to address these problems. Sometimes the problems are easy to fix, other times they take some creative thinking.
A few years ago I realised that one area of my teaching just was not working, the students were disengaged and found the topic a bore. So like most of us I started thinking how I could alter this, and as I started planning I starting to keep a journal with ideas. At first it was very factual and rudimentary, focusing on experimental change. To my surprise the nature of the journal changed, as I implemented my new teaching strategies I started recording students reactions. The changes brought about conversations with students that were unexpected, they moved beyond what I was teaching and asked questions. Writing down these conversations I began to see the value in keeping a journal. I was later to learn that this was called being a reflective practitioner. This one small change helps keep my teaching fresh because it is a constant reminder of what I’m doing, what is working, what I did in the past and how the students are reacting.
With time and confidence you start casting your net wider. I’ve joined online communities, forums and blogs all allowing us to share our problems, successes and ideas. I’ve become more familiar with some of the education terminology and while I’m not quite at the stage of regularly reading journals, articles from education periodicals are becoming more frequent in my reading list.