Teaching Tips

As Time Goes By: Maintaining Vitality in the Classroom

For beginning teachers, mastering the craft of teaching usually takes a back seat to mastering the content—it’s enough just to stay one day ahead of the students! But experienced teachers know that being effective in the classroom isn’t merely a matter of finally “getting down” both content and craft, and then forgetting about it. Rather, maintaining our vitality as teachers requires regular attention and care.

In our early years of teaching—if we’re lucky—we discover mentors who guide our development. As we mature, we need to become our own mentors—devising our own ways of enhancing the quality of our teaching and solving the teaching-related problems that invariably arise. If you’re an experienced teacher and feel it’s time for a tune-up, the following tips may help.

Self-Mentoring Tips
Be Willing To Experiment!
One of the best ways to maintain a sense of excitement about teaching is to do something different. If you typically teach large classes, try a smaller one, or vice versa. Develop a new course or offer a seminar on a special topic. If you’re a dynamic and effective lecturer, learn how to lead good discussions. Team teach a course. Incorporate more demonstrations and activities in your classes. Would cooperative learning strategies work in any of your classes?

Take Careful Notes About What Works And What Doesn’t
We learn by experience, but sometimes we fail to take full advantage of our experience because we forget the lesson we learned! To solve this problem, write notes to yourself about what goes over particularly well and what bombs in classes. Keep a sheet of paper in the back of each course folder for notes about revisions you want to implement the next time you teach the class. At the end of the term, immediately review these notes and evaluate the course. Then, compile a list of the changes you want to make for next time, and file it for later reference.

Seek Out New Ideas About Teaching
Keeping up with advancements in our discipline is familiar to us. We may be less knowledgeable about how to keep up on the craft of teaching. Luckily, there are numerous resources on instruction available.

Read journals on teaching—Teaching of Psychology is available; you receive a free journal subscription with a membership in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (APA’s Division 2), and you can join the Division as an affiliate member without having to join APA.

Utilize teaching resources—The Office of Teaching Resources in Psychology (OTRP) of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology distributes teaching materials (classroom activities, syllabi, annotated bibliographies, etc.). You can view the current list of resources by visiting the OTRP home page, ORTP Online (www.lemoyne.edu/OTRP/).

Read newsletters on teaching—There are several newsletters for teachers. The Teaching Professor has reduced rates for group subscriptions, and your department/division/college might want to subscribe. Or, there is The Psychology Teacher Network which is published by APA. It is free to members; and available to nonmembers for a small price.

Attend a conference or session devoted to teaching—Teaching conferences exist across the country, both regional and national. Teaching conferences provide a context within which to focus solely on teaching and to compare experiences and ideas with other teachers of psychology. Many people who have taught for years find it enriching to learn new teaching techniques and to talk with others who are also interested in teaching. The most widely known may be the annual National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology, held each January in St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. It is run cooperatively by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of South Florida, and APS. APS also has a one day Institute on the Teaching of Psychology as part of its national meeting.

Other conferences include those sponsored by Ithaca College, Southern Indiana University, Texas Wesleyan University, Kennesaw State College  the College of DuPage, SUNY-Farmingdale, James Madison University, and the Lewis M. Terman Western Regional Teachers Conference. (My apologies to any conferences I have omitted.)

Consider other sources of new ideas—Read books about teaching (see the list of recommended readings for suggestions). Share teaching strategies with interested colleagues. Why not institute once-a-term departmental teaching workshops for those who are interested?

Get a Different Perspective on Your Teaching
A great way to see how you’re actually coming across in the classroom is to have a class videotaped and view it for strengths and weaknesses. Many of us do this early in our careers, but it’s helpful to do it later as well, because, over time, our perspectives on teaching change, as does our teaching. You’ll see some good things (“Wow, that was a really lucid explanation!”) and some bad ones (“I can’t believe it—I must have said, ‘OK?’ 25 times in 50 minutes!”).

 Also, check for nonverbal messages that affect your students and the classroom atmosphere. You can get other perspectives by asking faculty with reputations for excellent teaching to observe your classes or a videotape. See what services your institution’s Teaching Center offers.

Stay in Touch With Your Students
Do students return blank stares when you share a humorous anecdote that used to bring forth appreciative chortles and nods of understanding? I can still recall my shock at students’ mystified looks when I mentioned the Bay of Pigs disaster while discussing a social psychology experiment! As we become more experienced as teachers, we also grow older. Sooner or later, we hit the point when we’re the age of our students’ parents. For better or worse, this means that students’ perceptions of us change, and vice versa.

A big part of being a good teacher is to know where your students are coming from so you can connect the course material to experiences in their lives and use language to which they can relate. (If you have college-aged children or acquaintances, this gives you a small edge—although I know parents who would dispute this!) As we get more distant in age from our students, it’s important to stay tuned in to their culture. Take a look at the demographic information and survey data on the attitudes of college freshmen in the Almanac issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education published every August. It’s also helpful to know what books students are reading; the Chronicle usually carries a list of best-sellers on college campuses. And, if you’re feeling really adventuresome, tune into MTV or some pop radio stations (stand well back from the speakers) to hear what they’re listening to!

Regularly Seek Students’ Suggestions for Improving Your Courses
Try conducting midterm evaluations on critical aspects of your courses. This strategy is especially helpful if you’re trying something new for the first time, or if you discover that something that used to work in class no longer has the same effect. Giving midterm evaluations also allows you to make changes in a course, if you choose, while the students who made the suggestions can still benefit from them. Or, consider a small student committee to keep you apprised of how things are going in the course.

Cultivate a Positive Attitude and Maintain Your Enthusiasm
An essential part of teaching—especially these days—is motivating students to be interested in the material. Enthusiasm and optimism are contagious. After teaching the same ideas for a long time, we may find our excitement about the material diminishing. Also, sometimes we wrongly assume, because certain concepts are common knowledge to us, that students are also familiar with them. From this perspective, it is like being forced to tell a joke realizing that the audience already knows the punch-line. But, if we can key in on what we find interesting about the material, students are likely to get excited about it as well—and this also helps maintain our enthusiasm!

Self-Mentoring in Special Circumstances
Sometimes we face situations for which solutions aren’t obvious. Maybe we have a particularly troublesome student or feel that we’re not able to hold students’ attention the way we would like. Maybe we don’t even know what the specific problem is—things just aren’t going well. At times like this, we can use self-mentoring in a more deliberate and systematic way. We can take the role of a helpful other, and ask ourselves the same questions we would pose to a colleague who came to us with our problem. “What seems to be the nature of the problem?” “What might be some likely causes of the problem, based on what I know about myself, and the situation?” “What kinds of things might I do to solve the problem?” These questions speak to the expertise aspect of mentoring.

Avoid the Negativity Trap
Reflect for a moment on our role as a mentor to others. Sharing our expertise is important, but we often help the most by encouraging others and reminding them of their capabilities and positive qualities. Sometimes we can get caught in a negativity trap blaming ourselves or blaming our students. When this happens, it’s important to remember to serve ourselves as well as we would serve others, tuning into our strengths and positive qualities. Encouragement and acceptance can produce the same payoff for ourselves as they do for others!

Self-mentoring can optimize our enjoyment of teaching and keep us alive in the classroom as we mature in our profession. If you’re not already doing it, give it a try!

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