Wednesday 2 January 2013

What I Learned From Teaching This Year

By John D. O'Brien, S.J.

Credit: www.

At the end of my first semester teaching in higher education, I find it an opportune time to evaluate the experience while it’s fresh, and draw out some key lessons learned. These are not, in any way, “ultimate” pointers for teaching, nor are they limited to college or university—they have resonance with other teaching experiences in high school and workplace. I arrange them as “rules” only for ease of reading. They are as follows:

1. Be yourself. By this I mean: do not play a character because it will wear thin and soon appear inauthentic. The young are perceptive observers and evaluators of all things, and can detect play-acting from a mile away. Be yourself means employing your strengths as they exist, and above all, being honest. This rule reappears in various forms in several of the others that follow.

2. Remember Dorothy Sayers’ key insight: educators above all are there to help students acquire the tools of learning. Let’s face it, most of the information we relay is available online, in one form or another. They will also go on to learn the most important things “on the job.” Our task is to help them learn to think according to a discipline! In many courses, information retention is minimal, but the mind-formation is forever. The implications here are numerous: do not enable lazy writing or research by spoon-feeding or easy grading, but rather, assist them in discovering the means of good research and writing. Make your expectations clear, and tell them where to go fishing.

3. Marshall McLuhan taught that “the medium is the message”. In the classroom, you are the medium, and therefore, in many ways, you are also the message. Your enthusiasm or lack thereof for the subject matter sends a message loud and clear. Find the fundamental points of your course content that thrill you, that connect to the wider flow of human knowledge, the truths that will make you and your students greater for having studied them. Recall those points every day while you eat breakfast.

4. Get enough sleep.

5. Personal anecdotes matter. Paul VI famously said: people today do not listen to teachers anymore; they only listen to witnesses. And if they do listen to teachers it is only because they are also witnesses. Feel free to offer your own stories, illustrations, opinion and interpretations. There is a reason you are in the role of “magister”. Using stories to convey truths is a time-honoured technique, and practiced, of course, by the greatest Teacher ever.

6. Do not be afraid of saying “I don’t know” if you really do not know. You are not supposed to be an all-knowing oracle. That said, do your homework and promise to look into the question, and offer the best answer as you may have found in the next class.

7. Do not underestimate your students’ intelligence, nor play to the lowest common denominator. It’s better to teach “up” than “down” to your students. If some things are beyond their grasp, that’s okay. It will still give them something to chew on and aspire to. Err on the side of intelligence, but take the time to answer any questions.

8. This may sound odd, but it’s important to love your students. This is something the Christian teacher should relate to, for it draws from St. Paul: “Love is patient and kind. … Love bears all things… hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13: 4-7) As St. John Bosco writes in his brilliant and inspiring Preventive System of discipline, our approach should be “based entirely on reason and religion and above all on kindness.” This does not mean “being friends” with or having sentimental attachment to your students (to be avoided!), but it does mean having a concern and interest in them that comes from the level of the heart.

To conclude, I would like to recommend this short video called “Wright’s Law”, which is about a special teacher with an unusual facility for connecting with his students. I propose a little exercise: while watching this, ask yourself what it is that Mr. Wright has that makes him so compelling and so respected as a teacher. Then ask yourself what you have within you that is similar. Examine yourself as to where you need to grow to acquire or increase that quality. Trust me, it will not be wasted time.

Happy new year to all our readers!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, John! I can tell - your students love you. How every word you said rang true.....
    No greater tool is there for teaching a subject than the teacher's own passion for it. Creative lesson materials that involve the students' physical participation or that entice the use of any or all of their five senses help too - as in Mr. Wright's clases.
    And there is always the heart-breaking side - watching Mr. Wright play with his son brought tears to my eyes.