“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” -William Arthur Ward
Every so often, people get up-in-arms about teaching and education in college. New studies come out, new methods are touted and tried, curricula get revised, and pretty much everyone gets criticized. Anyone familiar with the undergraduate experience knows that — nationwide, at least — physics departments are often at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to how poorly their students rate them. (There are, of course, some very notable exceptions.)
First off, there’s a lot of information out there, and it’s really difficult to sift through. For example, should I use active engagement? Do I need to worry about making my course too easy? What about negative opinions that students have about science, and its general unpopularity? What’s the right way to assess student learning? Why even bother with college at all? And there are so many different approaches out there, whose model should I follow? Richard Claude‘s? Steinn‘s? Or perhaps you’ll take the path of least resistance, and simply do it the way you were taught?
There’s no better time to reflect upon the academic year that just ended. Professors are finishing their semesters and receiving their teaching evaluations, new faculty are getting ready for their first years in the fall, and yet we seem to be headed towards a one-size-fits-all model of education.
With all this in mind, here are my top tips for teachers, that reflect what I’ve learned over my life — so far — in my capacities as an educator in all sorts of different realms.
1.) Take pride in being as good a teacher as you can. I really, really mean this one. If you can’t take this step, get out. If you can’t bring yourself to care enough to really bring an outstanding effort to your teaching, in terms of planning, preparation and delivery, there is nothing I (or anyone else) can tell you that will make you a good teacher.
What does this mean? It means that you’re going to commit to using everything you’ve got and everything you know to give your students the best learning experience you can give them in the time you have together.
Are you on board? Then you’re ready for the next step.
2.) Love the subject you’re teaching. If you can’t bring yourself to come in excited and enthusiastic for your lesson, how are you possibly going to get your students excited about it? But if you love it like it’s the greatest thing in the world — because for you, it actually is — your students will know. And, for the most part, they’ll appreciate that.
Don’t even think about the pipe dream that all of your students are going to appreciate you all of the time. It won’t happen, and if you’re teaching to get that external validation from your students, you’re pretty much always going to be disappointed. But if you love your subject, and you take pride in teaching it well, you’ve got it in you to be a great teacher.
What do you have to do?
3.) Teach the right way for your own style. Not everyone can stand up in front of a class and do 60 minutes of calculus. Not everyone can deliver a compelling lecture on black hole formation. And not everyone can critique students’ problem-solving ability in a constructive manner in a large lecture hall.
Teaching is as much about learning what works for students (and you know some of this: you were once a student) as it is about learning what works for you. I’m not saying you should never leave your comfort zone, but I am saying that following the latest education fad isn’t going to make you a good teacher. Figuring out your style and working your lessons into a form that suits you and your style, however, may.
The United States is weird, with our obsession with assessment and standardized tests. I think that having standards, particularly in scientific fields, is important. But beyond that, it’s important to recognize how the rest of the world does it.
4.) Feel free to develop your own curriculum, lessons, and teaching methods. In many other countries, believe it or not, you’re not supposed to teach a standardized curriculum. I would argue, based on my experience, the best parts of any course are the parts you could not possibly standardize or test.
(Don’t believe me? Read this teacher’s story.)
Don’t be afraid to be creative. And…
5.) Don’t fall into the trap of having to cover everything. It’s much better to do the best you can in the time you have to do it, and to choose what you think is most important, than it is to expose students to every little detail.
For me, this means that — in an introductory physics course — I spend a lot of time and effort on electricity and magnetism, but very little on compound lens systems or thermodynamics. For another introductory physics teacher, it could just as easily be the opposite, and it could still be a great physics course.
In point of fact, the other introductory astronomy teacher at my college probably only teaches about 30% of the same material I do in his version of Intro to Astronomy.
That’s a good thing! He’s not me, I’m not him, and although we both like each other and respect each other’s courses, it’s a big enough field that there are enough interesting things for the both of us. When you look at the image above, do you focus on the stars? On the tattered ribbons of hot gas? Or on the blackness of space?
My point is, they’re all important, and they all have excellent lessons, and you don’t do anyone any favors by compelling them to all teach the same things the same way.
Some other tips:
- You are fallible, and you should be able to admit to your students when you’ve done something that you wished you had done better.
- Model what you expect them to do. If you expect them to solve problems, solve some similar examples for them in class.
- Give them practice. If they’re going to be tested on something, give them practice doing it. If the test questions are going to be hard, make at least some of the practice questions equally hard.
- And don’t beat yourself up over the ones who don’t try hard enough. Some of them won’t, and they need to learn that lesson for themselves, even if it comes at your expense on your evaluations.
Don’t get me wrong; interactivity is good. Assessments are good. But so are lots of other things.
If you’ve got a good knowledge of your subject and a dear love of both it and of teaching, you’ve got it in you to be a great teacher. But you’ve got to keep learning, you’ve got to take responsibility for your own shortcomings, and you’ve got to give it your all to teach them what you believe is important for them to learn. You’re going to make mistakes, and so are they. But if you go, day-by-day, on the journey of what everyone’s learning, and you pay attention, and you work to get better at it (and to help them get better at it), that’s how you become great. The rest of it — what most people focus on — those are just details. Get the big issues right, and you just might discover, for a teacher, what really matters.