I’ve been thinking here lately about that long mid-career stretch where there is no clearly defined beginning or ending. You’re no longer a new faculty member, but aren’t yet an old one. From a pedagogical perspective, what makes that time window unique? In a recent post on tired teaching I identified what I think is the major challenge of those years—keeping your teaching fresh and keeping yourself engaged, enthusiastic, and instructionally moving forward. On the other hand, some special opportunities are afforded by that long stretch in the middle. The question is whether we’re taking full advantage of them.
1. More student mentoring and coaching – At the front end of a career, especially if you’re young, there’s a need to keep a certain amount of distance between you and the students. But as the years roll on and teachers become more established, there’s room for student relationships that focus on issues beyond their performance in a course. Yes, indeed, they must always be professionally appropriate relationships, but it becomes easier to talk with students about the knowledge and skills needed in the workplace, and about those life lessons inherently a part of growing up. Coaches provide feedback on all aspects of an athlete’s performance that need improvement and then work one-on-one to remediate deficient skills. Experience working with lots of students positions mid-career teachers to do the same.
2. Substantive teaching improvement – Early on, as you begin finding your way as a teacher, it’s about keeping the ratings moving in the right direction. With confidence and some job security, mid-career teachers can ask those difficult questions about how well their teaching is promoting learning. Also, by that point in their career, most teachers have received a range of negative student comments and experienced the various emotions that emanate from them. The response continues to be visceral, but most of us have learned how to build some perspective around those comments that hurt more than help. We can accept that we aren’t perfect teachers and never will be. This provides the freedom to explore all aspects of how we teach. We can learn to work with what we don’t do well, and use strengths to compensate for weaknesses.
3. Collegial collaboration – For many of us, the first collegial involvement in our teaching is the ubiquitous promotion and tenure peer review. Although important, this kind of peer review is a poor representation of what colleagues can do for each other’s teaching. During the mid-career years, colleagues can be pedagogical collaborators. The relationships with the greatest potential are ones hallmarked by trust. Then colleagues can be in each other’s courses with feedback that goes way beyond whether the PowerPoint slides look good. Colleagues can challenge the assumptions on which teaching practices rest. They can assess the effectiveness of new approaches, interview students about their learning experiences in the course, and parse student feedback from a more objective perspective. Collegial collaboration holds great promise—we need to take the leap of faith and start using it in ways that realize its potential.
4. Time for long-range planning – Beginning teachers are often in survival mode, and every day presents a new challenge. Assembling collections of course materials, settling into a teaching style that feels comfortable and works for students, figuring out how to deal with student excuses and grade grubbing—there’s so much work to be done. Mid-career faculty have done all that and would be well-served to redirect some their newfound time and energy to figuring out where they want to go instructionally and mapping out how they’re going to get there. I don’t think a lot of mid-career faculty do this. For most of us our instructional growth is pretty haphazard—it happens as it happens, but it could be planned and would be better if it was.
5. The chance to take risks – Teaching benefits when teachers step outside their comfort zone—when they try an instructional approach markedly different from how they normally teach, when they teach content they are learning along with the students, when they collaborate with a colleague to produce some pedagogical scholarship, or when they take a course or learn a new skill. Possibilities abound, but most of them require an adventurous attitude and the willingness to fail or do something not very well. The value of taking risks is less about the outcome and more about the process—that wave of feelings; excitement, frustration, anxiety, accomplishment, and burst of energy that comes when we find ourselves exploring a new place in the teaching-learning universe.