Good teaching is hard to model

I was a school teacher for 8 years, and by my own standards (as well as the feedback from parents, students and principals) I did a pretty good job. Sure, there were aspects of my teaching that, when stacked up against the literature I encountered in grad school, would have been labeled less than exemplary. But I think in most respects I was effective, had a good relationship with the students and parents and my students left my class with a lot more knowledge and skills than they came in with. The problem with all of this is that it occurred within my classroom and was only observed by my students and me. And my students weren’t really critiquing my teaching. They were active participants in the process and the reason the teaching was taking place.

Contrast this with my current teaching assignment. I teach about teaching. So, when I tell the students they should do¬† this or that, I need to model this or that. When I was a teacher, I would try implementing this or that, and sometimes would continue using this and completely abandon that. And it ended there. My teaching strategies were the means to an end … student learning. Now, the end is parallel to the means. I want my students to learn good teaching techniques, but I also feel this pressure to use good teaching techniques in order to teach them. It would be far easier to plan a lecture, flip through some slides and give a test. But it seems to me that the best way to teach certain pedagogical approaches — say, cooperative learning — is to design lessons that implement those pedagogical approaches. Additionally, they can’t be done in a “community of practice” sense either, where I make some mistakes and we talk about the teachable moments and learn from the things the professor screwed up on. The lessons need to be delivered with precision and completely thought through. I feel at times like I am stuck in some performance assessment nightmare, where I am being judged not only on my knowledge of the content but also by my delivery of the content.

When the preservice teachers have had a chance to participate in the teaching strategy, it seems to me, we have something to talk about. They observed/participated in it, and now we can talk about it in real terms, rather than treating the teaching strategy like some straw man that everyone beats down yet has no real experience with. As my advisor used to say, it’s easy to stand on the sidelines and throw rocks, but it’s a lot harder to actually do something meaningful and thoughtful. Of course, he was referring to publishing, but it also applies to the art of teaching.

This is all fresh on my mind because I just gave a lecture to my students on how to lecture. My talk was well planned out, and I had a lot of good suggestions for the students. But as I reflected on the class, I was struck that I didn’t do some of the things I had told my students they should do when lecturing to students. Strategies such as providing students with a note-taking template and using questioning to check for comprehension and engage the listeners. Basically, I didn’t feel like I effectively modeled what I was telling my students they should do in their lectures.

This brings me back to the title. Good teaching is hard to do. It takes a lot of extra time that the teacher will really never get paid for. That never really mattered to me because the standards I set for myself were always higher than those imposed by other people. Good teaching really is hard to do, but it’s even harder to model.