April 28th, 2010

Five Reminders for Boosting Your Effectiveness as a Teacher


I have observed, sometimes in myself and sometimes in colleagues, a certain tendency to be ironically unaware of (or inattentive to) a crucial disconnect between what we say and what we do. We’re good at talking the talk, but we are not so good at walking the walk, particularly in terms of our audience awareness.

We teach students to assess the communication context and adapt their messages to respond to the audience’s needs and desires. But how often do we fail to do that same thing with our teaching? If we are honest with ourselves, I believe the answer is “far too often.”

Here are five principles I try to reclaim when I feel myself slipping into that dark night where even my best efforts are revealed as ineffective and the only remedy is a candid self-assessment.

1. Practice what you preach. Students can smell a rat from the next building, so if I am insisting upon audience awareness as a basic tenet of effective communication, I’d better be showing as well as telling them how to do it. Think about it this way: how am I demonstrating audience awareness if I never deviate from the lesson plan I prepared five, 10, or even 15 years ago? How am I modeling flexibility of thought and expression if I insist upon using the same lecture notes, overhead transparencies, or PowerPoint slides even when it’s clear I have lost my audience? Are you finding it hard to connect with your students? Practice what you preach: sharpen your audience awareness and adapt accordingly.

2. Remember that “adaptive” is not a synonym for “easier.” While teachers can discuss their assignments and exercises with a level of conviction that borders on the religious, suggest experimenting with something new, something that shifts the paradigm from teaching to learning, and you’re likely to experience the academic equivalent of a smack-down, cloaked in the polarizing rhetoric of “rigor” versus “dumbing down” the curriculum. Change is inherently neutral. Adaptive change is good. Just ask the dodo. Wait, the dodo is extinct. Precisely.

3. Reflect upon the meaning of the verb “to educate,” which comes from the Latin educere, “to draw forth.” We cannot “draw forth” a student’s interest, awareness, and ability if we never leave our egocentric elevation on center stage. Drawing forth suggests a reaching in and a pulling out, a teacher-initiated effort to meet the student where he or she is and move forward together. It implies an other-orientation, a willingness to set our own comfort aside and risk entering the student’s cerebral territory—however unsettling that prospect may be.

4. Put yourself back in their shoes. Do we recall how frustrating it can be to know what you want to say but find it hard to say it effectively? Were we born knowing how to develop a solid thesis statement and at least x-number of strong supporting points? Humility is an underutilized virtue. Plenty of bright people in this world could not identify the “best” thesis statement from a list of possibilities. It’s helpful to reflect upon that from time to time.

5. Try and try again. We have all heard colleagues wax eloquent about students’ inability to translate knowledge from one context to another—for example, to think about something they learned in an economics class while reading an assignment for an English class. Are we guilty of the same silo mentality? I wonder. If we only view “revision” as a topic related to writing, then we are missing the point in a serious way. Revision is a life skill. The point is that experimenting with new instructional strategies is going to be at best a series of educated guesses. Know when to cut your losses and move on to the next method. The more you try, the more likely you are to succeed now and then. And when we succeed, our students succeed.

Kim Taylor, PhD is an instructor at Trident Technical College, SC.

Excerpted from Talking the Talk, but Not Walking the Walk: A Meditation on Irony, May 2008, The Teaching Professor.