Ok, so what is the RIGHT way to teach?

When reading Deel’s Finding My Teaching Voice, I found myself thinking a lot about what kind of teacher I wanted to be and how I wanted my students to view me. I’ve always struggled to think about how I would want to portray myself in the classroom. On the one hand, I want to be approachable and for my students to feel comfortable reaching out and interacting with me especially if the material is not clear to them and they need help. On the other hand, I worry about being too approachable and losing my sense of authority. At the same time, I have heard of some students having explicit or implicit biases and expecting more lenient or nurturing treatment from female professors. I’ve also heard about biases toward and disconnect from professors of color. Being at the intersection of these two identities, I have always been concerned about how to present myself as a professor with authority that teaches effectively to all students while being approachable and ideally well liked…..that’s all.

3 things in particular stuck out to me in Sarah Deel’s writing:

  1. It may create better buy-in from my students if I keep them in the loop about what pedagogical strategies I am trying to utilize. I guess I have always thought that professors crafted these strategies behind the scenes, apply them, and then cross their fingers. But it makes perfect sense to me now to share that information with my students. At least if they feel like something is foolish and they don’t see the point if I explain the potential value to them and WHY I want them to do it (or that it could help their fellow classmates) they may engage more. I also just think transparency is key, so that really hit home for me.
  2. There is no “right” way to teach; it may be more about how you use different strategies than which strategies you use. This thought has always been in the back of my mind, but it is reassuring to see it stated explicitly. Just because one particular teacher is extremely effective doesn’t mean if I use the same teaching strategy as they do I will magically be just as effective. It is okay for me to use another strategy that pairs better with my own personality and even what course I am teaching.
  3. When it comes to fairness, equality is not the same as equity. I have been discussing these terms of “equality” and “equity” with several colleagues recently, but I had never thought about the difference between these two in the context of teaching. If I want to ensure equality, I would treat all of my students identically, make sure I said the same thing to all of them, and expect equivalently excellent results from everyone. I don’t think that model works, as Deel alludes. Not all students need the same set of information or real-world context, nor do all students share the same or even overlapping learning styles. So if I want all of my students to excel to the same degree, I need a more individualistic approach that ideally addresses the specific needs of each student. That is where equitable learning comes in.

I look forward to crafting my teaching philosophy and my teaching persona based on these points and many more. It won’t be easy, but it does make me feel a little better that there is no “right” way to teach.

19 Comments

  1. I think your thoughts about outlining your pedagogy to students are spot on. I taught high school for six years, and I found that the more I communicated my expectations and teaching style, the better relationships I had with students. This is rather simple in nature: communication helps humans. However, you note the stereotypical power dynamics in teaching regarding authority. You still have to have that, but you want to be approachable. In my experience, if you make your expectations and teaching style clear, you create that authority while also becoming approachable because you are not hiding who you are. It’s a fine line, and it definitely takes time to master. I would expect some trial and error; however, if I had known that before I started teaching, I think it would have prevented some major bumps in the road in my first few years.

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  2. Before I taught here, my pedagogy classes had a lot of conversations around the issues of authority—particularly with women, with people of color, and with younger teachers. If you fit into one (or, of course, more) of these categories, there’s certainly cause for concern prior to entering a classroom.

    As a young woman who began teaching undergrads who were sometimes only a couple of years younger than me, I’ve found that, not only do the points you list (transparency, finding your teaching identity, individualizing student care) work, but that they’re vital to effective teaching. (And, while this shouldn’t have to be noted, I believe it’s important to note that these points of effective teaching don’t only pertain to women, people of color and young educators, but, ya know…everyone.) We must demonstrate earnest passion for our fields while simultaneously showing our students that we genuinely care about their wellbeing as scholars—and as people, in general.

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    1. This (Cherice’s post and both of the comments so far) is so helpful for the concerns I’ve had about going into teaching junior and female (even with the benefits of race in my case). I had considered transparency as a way to get students to engage, but not as a respect-builder. Honestly, I glazed over the writer’s section on making activities and pedagogy transparent and didn’t fully consider the potential significance of this.

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    2. Absolutely, thanks for sharing. When I begin teaching (I haven’t begun yet so I am still anxiously awaiting that big step) I will belong to all of those groups you list (young black woman here). So student perception of me and maintaining positive authority is something I think about a ton. There is probably a fine line in finding that balance, but I will certainly be mindful of those things moving forward.

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  3. I cannot agree that teachers lose their authority if they have a friendly relationship with their students. In my experience, it is more difficult to fairly evaluate students with whom interrelationships are formed than the decline of authority.

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    1. So what I’m hearing is that in your opinion fair and objective assessment is more of an issue (and more challenging) than loss of authority when you form relationships with your students. If I’m interpreting that correctly, I do agree to some extent with that potential concern, but I also think that it depends on how successful we are in maintaining the line of authority even in our relationships with students. If respect for that authority is present, they would still need to recognize that at the end of the day we are the teachers and will be objectively assessing them. At the same time, if we are successful in maintaining that line of authority, we would also need to challenge ourselves to be as objective as possible.

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      1. I enjoyed reading Cherice’s post and the comments are so thoughtful too! Really the kind of conversation that I was hoping for when we were in the “Networked Learning” week wondering about blogging. This is great !
        One point about establishing that positive authority comes to my mind. I think we change the dynamics of how authority is established in classrooms. In the classical sense, authority comes from fear. Fear of getting punished, losing attention and ultimately bad grades. But I find it interesting that when students deeply care about each other, they sort of ascribe to a self-rule system. They are so cognizant of their impact and their image in the eyes of their peers that they willingly hold the lines. it’s not of course a perfect system, but feels much less antiquated.

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  4. You make a good point about how not being a “traditional” (e.g. older, white, straight male) instructor comes with additional considerations. We must not only try to juggle trying to determine how we want to teach, but also how that teaching will be perceived. You may want to have a non-traditional teaching environment or be relaxed and personable, but if you’re also a non-traditional instructor, you may be afraid to take that chance. You may be more likely to engage in “traditional” teaching because you want to appear to “fit in.”

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    1. I agree 100%. I will eventually just have to decide whether I wanted to play it safe and try to fit in as you said or take the risk and really try to create a unique and meaningful teaching environment. Hopefully I’ll be in an environment that is supportive enough to allow me to take that risk.

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  5. Hi Cherice. I really resonated with your thoughts about balancing that line of being friendly and approachable while also maintaining authority of the students. I know personally, Individualization is in my top Gallop strengths, so I truly value looking at every person and situation as there own. However, I know working with my own student staff, this can create some sticky feelings. On one hand, my students have liked it becuase I can take into account a personal circumstance they are going through and work with them to make adjustments, on the other hand, some can feel that since they weren’t allowed to leave early or whatever it might be that they feel its unfair that someone else was able to. While we can see the full view, it can be hard to combat the group think that takes place if you do try to be individualistic.

    I additionally really liked your point about sharing your pedalogical appraoches or why you are doing what you are doing in the classroom. I agree with you that I think it helps the students buy into the activity or lesson. I know that something as simple as having an agenda or layout of the class session and stating why you are doing each thing seems to help in the situations I have been in. Thank you for your post!

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I definitely am concerned about how individual exceptions or alterations to the rules that I make to cater the learning experience to each student will come off to other students. I don’t want anyone to feel disadvantaged, and you can’t even be transparent in that case because you can’t tell all of the students that particular student’s circumstance. It will definitely be a line I work on strattling effectively.

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  6. Hi Cherice. I’m glad you wrote about being transparent with your pedagogical decisions with your students. Before reading the article by Sarah Deel, I too figured that good teachers crafted their lessons behind the scenes somewhere, manipulating their lessons and assignments just so in order to create eureka moments for their students. While I do think there is some merit to the concept that students’ learning is more genuine if they are able to arrive at their own conclusions through discovery (i.e. not being told the answer), I also think that at this level that method isn’t necessarily as impactful. In college, students are here because they chose to be here. Clueing them in as to why you’re asking them to do certain things will help them buy in to that experience.

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  7. I really appreciated your blog and honestly, the one I wrote is essentially the same. Understanding how to interact with students and present myself in the classrooom honestly seems like the hardest part because once I have a plan for the day – literally I’m the only thing that can go wrong. I somewhat wish I could teach a course myself while I was in grad school but our department doesn’t allow that.

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    1. Right! Our department doesn’t even really have built in teaching opportunities because we don’t have an undergrad program for our degree. So I’m worried about not having any practice before stepping on to the market.

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  8. Wow, what a stellar post, Cherice! I loved reading this. You set up the difficulty of navigating the classroom, given the complex intersectionality of identity, very well in your introduction. I particularly like the first point you highlighted about keeping students “in the loop” about how and why you are teaching in a particular style. I have tried to do this as well! I am really interested in collaboration in the classroom and recently read a book about this process that emphasized the importance of letting students know your goals and desires for incorporating collaboration. In Collaborative Learning As Democratic Practice: A History, Mara Holt demonstrates that the process of collaboration has been co-opted by teachers since the 1920s in higher education, often reflecting the ideological impetuses of the teachers enacting the practice. Beginning in the 1990s, feminist scholar-teachers began letting their students “in” on the pedagogical aims of collaboration — particularly the ability to recognize the multiplicity of ways to solve problems and to gain respect for others’ ideas in order to strengthen the classroom learning community. Sorry for the ramble, your post just reminded me so much of that book — in the best way! Enjoyed reading your work!

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  9. Cherice,

    I went to a small panel last year of professors, both on the tenure-track. One in particular had put in about 5 years at the time. She absolutely felt that her students tended to come to her often with their problems (e.g., personal, academic, emotional). She seemed very frustrated by this, not because she didn’t want to help, but mainly because her male colleagues weren’t burdened in the same way. She said her technique was to ask some students if they sought anyone else’s help before coming to her, then directing them that way. I hope I don’t struggle with striking a balance, because I believe I would feel obligated to be there for whoever knocks on my door.

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  10. I definitely agree that equality is not the same as equity! Specifically, as an instructor we have such a responsibility to help our students succeed, but it can often feel like not enough. After an individual has a better understanding of a student’s unique situation and learning style, it’s definitely easier to adapt and give them the best opportunity to succeed!

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