October 23rd, 2008

What Accounts for Teacher Growth?


“I have come to realize that it is not so much what students know as what they can do. Likewise, teaching is not about what I know but what I enable others to do.”

This quote is from an account of one teacher’s journey to instructional growth and maturity. It’s just full of wise insights. You’ll see more of it in an upcoming issue of the newsletter.

As I work to finish my book on career-long growth and development for college teachers, I’m still struggling with this question: why do some teachers grow while others do not? The question has several permutations: why do some teachers grow for a while and then stop? Why do some teachers grow in some areas and not others? If a teacher hasn’t grown for a long time, can the process be restarted?

I wonder if it depends on location—meaning, are some institutions more conducive to growth than others? I don’t think I would have survived 26 years at a research university if my instructional roots had not been planted in the fertile soil of a small liberal arts college with colleagues really devoted to teaching. There was no formal mentoring program at that institution, but I had many mentors during those first few years. The dean of academic affairs was regularly in my classroom. I have my personnel file from that place. It doesn’t contain any letters about those observations, but I can still tell you many important things about teaching I learned from his feedback.

Or, is instructional growth a function of personal growth and maturity? As we sort out and learn life lessons, does that affect how we come to understand the teaching-learning enterprise? As we become accepting of who we are, does that enable acquisition of an authentic teaching personae that works well, given who and what we teach?

Or, does instructional maturity result from explicit or intuitive knowledge that growth takes work and a sense that we need regularly to face instructional challenges—designing new courses, collaborating on teaching projects with colleagues, trying out new instructional venues (online or hybrid courses) or working with different kinds of learners (first-semester students, graduate students, adults, immigrants, little kids in Sunday school)?

Perhaps any of these explanations can account for growth; with a combination producing even greater development. As the quote above illustrates, instructional growth brings teachers to places of wisdom, places that make teaching something significantly more than just a job.

—Maryellen Weimer