Being a better teacher: 5 things not to do.

Yes, the Zeroth law of teaching should be “Don’t be negative” but that’s another post (as well as a comedy routine). Here are five things that I’ve stopped doing and my students seem to appreciate it.

  1. Confusing attendance with participation.
    Everything that I do with students should give them the opportunity to participate and engage – if I want them just to be exposed to knowledge I can give them readings outside of class and then use my presence and teaching skills to reinforce that in contact time. Taking a roll that demonstrates that they were physically present while I read the text book at them achieves very little. It’s the same for any other activity: a tick represents that they did something, not just that they were there.
  2. Bluffing.
    When I started out, there was always the temptation to have to appear all-knowledgeable at all times. Much as, in the PhD process, I finally learned that knowing a lot about an area also meant knowing what you didn’t know, sometimes teaching is about accepting that you’re wrong, or you weren’t clear, or that you need to take another approach. I didn’t try to bluff my students often, but I did it once or twice and it was dumb. Better to admit your mistakes and fix them than try and bluff. Your students will lose respect for you – and you’ll lose respect for yourself.
  3. Recycling Tired Material
    Some material should get carried forward into new courses because the fundamentals stay the same. However, where possible, every course should be reviewed and refreshed. If you are going to re-use something, update any time or context sensitive references. Putting up a piece on Steve Jobs the week after his death is timely. Three years down the track, unless it’s part of a very specific series of other material, it looks like you’re lazy. In particular, if you inherit slides or material from someone else, check it. Make it yours. Much as you will probably never win the 100m dash in borrowed shoes, you will probably never excel at teaching in someone else’s material and students can and do feel the difference.
  4. Overstating my authority
    “Because I said so”, however you state it, is the argument of last resort of a tired parent, it’s not going to achieve very much at all when you’re attempting to form high-reasoning, professionally competent people. Lecturers usually have very good reasons for almost everything that they do, whether shaped by good practice, current and past research or University policy, but it sometimes takes a lot of time to explain the reasons for something. That means, on occasion, when tired, or in a hurry, or because this is the 30th person this week to ask why they can’t just hand something up late, the temptation to appeal to your own authority can be tempting. Initially, when I first started teaching, my problem was that I expected all of my students to have read every single line of the policies so, when they questioned them, I assumed that I was being challenged. Stepping back, educating people to look at all of the relevant detail in pedagogical and professional terms is just part of my job. We now have course profiles that clearly describe everything a student needs to know. When questioned on things that are supported by course, school, faculty and University practice and policy, I depersonalise what is (most usually) not a personal attack at all and say “Look at the course profile. It will clearly explain everything” and refer all of my discussions to that.
    I am most definitely not saying that we have no authority in our teaching, or that we should abdicate our responsibility, but I am saying “know the limits” and use it when necessary and appropriate.
  5. Expecting students to be me
    What have I done? I have a Bachelors, a Masters and a PhD in Computer Science. I have a Grad Dip in Oenology (that’s wine science). I was a Captain in Royal Australian Armoured Corps. I run marathons up and down mountains for fun. Does this tell you what kind of student I am now? Maybe. You’d expect me to be driven, self-reliant and self-motivated. You’d be pretty right. Does it tell you what kind of student I was when I started? Not at all. My first degree took longer than it should because I was a terrible student, with no self-discipline or understanding of what I was doing or why I was doing it.
    When I first started teaching, I made the mistake of thinking that because I could get to where I got, every student in my class had that potential and that the way to realise that potential was the way that I did it. In hindsight, this is laughably stupid because my pathway was based on having an excellent secondary education, which I could draw on once I decided to become a good student, having a good support system, not running out of money, living in a safe city, being part of an un-repressed group (white Australian male) and having a lot of good luck, including meeting my wife, who is the cornerstone of all of my success. Due to Australian polygamy laws, not everyone will be able to marry my wife, so this approach is obviously not generalisable.
    More seriously,  my students have a wide variety of life and educational experiences before they come to me. What affects the way that they learn, participate and grow will vary from student to student. While every student has the potential to pass, assuming we have set up our entrance criteria correctly, it is up to me to be aware of the wide variety of student when I’m teaching and try to hold that delicate balance that meets most people’s needs most of the time.

Learning from mistakes and improving for the future is one of the most important skills my students learn – it makes sense that I value it as well and I practise what I try to teach them.

One Comment on “Being a better teacher: 5 things not to do.”

  1. Live life … it’s good 4ya!!


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