June 6th, 2013

Becoming a Better Teacher: Principles That Make Improvement a Positive Process

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Editor’s note: These principles don’t propose breathtakingly new insights, but they offer a context for improvement that should make efforts to teach better more successful.

  • Improvement is not a dirty word—All teachers can improve; most should. Don’t base efforts on premises of remediation and deficiency. Positive premises work just as well. You can improve your teaching just as effectively doing more of what works well as you can by seeking to eliminate weaknesses.
  • Focus efforts to improve on encouraging more and better learning for students—Asking if a teacher wants to improve often engenders a defensive response (more evidence of premises of remediation and a motivation to improve driven by the need to fix problems). Asking if a teacher cares how much and how well students learn engenders positive responses, even from curmudgeons. Take what is known about learning (much is) and work to figure out the instructional implications of that theory and research. Ask yourself this question: If a teacher aspired to teach in ways that promoted learning, what would that teacher do about instructional nuts and bolts such as assignments, classroom policies, and presentational approaches?
  • Don’t trivialize what’s involved in the process—Stop thinking quick fixes, techniques, and training. The “just-do-it” approach toward instructional change doesn’t cut it. Discovering a good technique and attaching it to whatever’s happening in class tomorrow trivializes the complex interplay of variables that contribute to success in the classroom. Effective, sustainable change rests on careful planning and a systematic, thoughtful approach to change.
  • Recognize the role of learning in the improvement process—Most faculty aren’t trained to teach, and norms expecting ongoing growth and development are not strong. As a result, most of what we know about teaching we have learned by doing—not by study, analysis, and careful reflection. Most faculty are surprised when they discover how much can be learned by reading, by encountering research and theory, and by thoughtful analysis. Part of what makes this learning motivating and satisfying is that class time tomorrow (or sometime soon) offers an opportunity to apply that new knowledge. Most of us love to learn, and seeing teaching and learning as new material to master can make teaching a source of intellectual intrigue.
  • Personhood is expressed through teaching—We do teach content and we do teach students, but just as surely we teach who we are. Conduct in and out of the classroom conveys important messages about values, beliefs, and attitudes. Because students respond to us as people, because teaching reveals something about us as human beings, it leaves us vulnerable, open, exposed, and thereby able to be hurt. It’s an occupational hazard for which we don’t get extra pay or protection. But it also affords opportunity—the chance to be valued and confirmed as a person, to be honored and respected. This means that better teaching isn’t always about learning the content better. It isn’t always about the acquisition of new techniques. Sometimes it’s about being a better person.
  • Improvement begins and ends with the faculty member—You play the central role in the improvement process. Others may try to motivate. They may threaten (no merit raise if you don’t improve). They may cajole (your students deserve it). They may try to persuade (your students will learn more if you do it this way). But they cannot implement one change in your classroom . . . you alone can do that. In the same way that you can’t learn anything for your students, nobody can improve your teaching for you. It’s something done by you, for you (and for your students).
  • Formative feedback guarantees the integrity of the improvement process—Teachers need diagnostic, descriptive details that help them understand the impact of their policies, practices, and behaviors on student learning. The systems used by most institutions to evaluate instruction fail to provide this kind of feedback. This failure is a good news/bad news scenario. The bad news is that most institutions could (and should) be doing better. This is an area in which much useful research has been conducted. The good news is that you can step in and make the process work for you. You can ask students about the impact of a particular assignment, activity, practice, exam, or reading on their learning. You can ask questions about the impact of any aspect of instruction on learning. You should be asking about many of these aspects if you want to make wise and well-informed decisions about improvement.
  • Set realistic expectations for success—Too often we expect perfection. In order to be “good,” a classroom activity has to thoroughly engage and involve every single student. It has to work every time we use it, regardless of class level and content. Anything less than complete success means the activity is flawed or we have failed. Realistically, however, anything we do or try in the class is going to have mixed results. Although aspirations to perfection are lofty, they aren’t very realistic, at least for most of us.
  • See teaching excellence as a career-long quest—Don’t expect to finally get it right or to permanently achieve an exemplary level of teaching excellence. Once you think you’ve arrived, the journey is over. It’s the quest for teaching excellence that motivates, inspires, and satisfies. Find pleasure in your travels. Once you reach one destination, leave shortly for yet another interesting place.

Reprinted from “Principles That Make Improvement a Positive Process,” The Teaching Professor, 19.10 (2005): 5.