There is comfort in things that are black or white, isn’t there? It feels good to have clarity and to be able to predict an outcome with certainty. I’m a scientist and therefore well-schooled and admittedly comfortable with predictability. Because, at least in my world, when the predictable does not happen, we usually find dysfunction. Disciplinary background aside, the question of whether good teaching is caught or taught draws many of us in because we gravitate toward having a definitive answer—black or white, caught or taught. Further, most of us really do want to be good teachers and we’d love to have a recipe or formula that predicts— or even better, guarantees—good teaching. If neither one of those are possible, then we’d at least be grateful for something that affirms that we are on the right path.
Unfortunately, I think most of us know that type of either/or clarity is elusive. With most complex issues we encounter, the “correct” answer hides somewhere in the mud of the murky middle and if anything qualifies as complex, it’s teaching. As one begins to pile on the factors and variables present in every classroom, regardless of size, discipline or location, it quickly becomes apparent why some concrete advice on how to navigate those variables would be welcome salve to any teacher.
As someone in charge of faculty development activities on campus but also because I want to become a better teacher, I think a lot about how we nurture good teaching. We could address the issue by asking what works. What are the attitudes, behaviors, or practices of teachers who consistently demonstrate good teaching? We might be able to emulate them or at least pick up a new approach or insight to improve our teaching. However, there are inevitable challenges with this approach. For example, the advice offered by someone who teaches physics may not be applicable or translatable to someone who teaches in a skill-based, professional program. Are we to assume that what any good teacher does can be integrated by another teacher, regardless of discipline?
Alternatively, we could look at the literature to gain insight on what characteristics of good teaching have been studied and proven effective. There are multitudes of articles that address the “what works?” question— how is faculty teaching encouraged, or measured or taught? Often, the best of these papers not only look at how faculty perceptions of teaching change; they also look at how courses change and student learning is affected. With those approaches in mind, I offer two cairns I have taken from the literature and my own self-reflection in hopes that they provide some direction in the continuing pursuit of good teaching.
First, prepare and train for a long journey. In his book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer reflects on the dramatic swings experienced by those who teach. One day, you feel like a master teacher facilitating conversation and guiding students to profound insights. The next day (or even in the next section of the same course), the silence is stifling and attempts at facilitation seem to cause students to withdraw further (Palmer, 1998). In the years I’ve been teaching, I’ve discovered that if I arrive at a point where I begin to feel confident and think that just maybe I might have some good teaching in me, a miserable classroom experience inevitably follows and I recalibrate my teaching skills and abilities.