January 20, 2009

False Assumptions Beginning Teachers Make

By: in Faculty Development, Philosophy of Teaching

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Lately I’ve been wondering if there’s a set of initial assumptions made about teaching and learning that inhibit instructional growth and development. Here is list of a few of these assumptions, and why I think they make teaching excellence less attainable.

Teaching is a gift—Teaching does involve some natural ability and some teachers are more gifted than others, but success in the classroom also depends on a learnable skill set. If you attribute success to a gift, then anything less than success must be equated with the absence of a gift, and that bodes poorly for future professional development.

Learning to teach is easy—If teaching is a gift, then any learning associated with it should come easily. If you don’t seem to have the gift and what you’re trying isn’t working, is the commitment to excellence likely to remain strong or might it be easier to start blaming students for what isn’t being accomplished in the classroom?

Teach like your favorite teachers—The best teaching model is a genuine, authentic representation of the person involved. New teachers must be their own persons, and discover and build on the strengths they bring to teaching. If they try but can’t do what their best teacher did, does that develop confidence and self assurance?

Teach like you like to be taught — Most of today’s college students favor learning modes quite different from those of the teacher. Previous learning experiences are a well from which ideas can be drawn, but the river of student experiences and approaches to learning is deep and wide. A teacher can fish for learning with a pole or nets. If the size of the catch matters, then nets are the obvious choice.

There will be behavior problems in every class unless the teacher takes action to prevent them—Today most syllabi devote more space to what the students won’t be doing as opposed to what they will be learning. Is it possible that prodigious efforts to prevent problems end up promoting them? A retreat behind policies and prohibitions ends up defining teacher-student relationship based on rules and enforcement.

One of the questions we really need to answer is why some faculty end up so burned out, cynical and ineffective in the classroom. I just can’t believe that most start out wanting to end up that way, but too many do. I wonder if there is something about how they approached teaching or believed about it in the beginning that headed them down this nonproductive path.

Excerpted from Mistaken Assumptions That Mislead Beginning Teachers, The Teaching Professor, May 2007.

Maryellen Weimer is the editor of The Teaching Professor, and a Penn State Professor Emeritus of Teaching and Learning.

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