As I sit down to write an impression piece to cover the lectures of Kevin Johnson, the first question I have to ask myself must be: Is this format acceptable? I was not surprised that the issue of blog-style essaying came up during class discussion. What surprised me was that it did not present itself until the second class. After all, lecture #1 was geared toward teaching and there is a new wave of online teaching that appears to be gripping the nation. But it was a great point of agreement that Kevin helped us reach in so far as learning has not changed and the essential ways that students learn are no different now than they were centuries ago (all the way back to Socrates). The only thing changing is the presentation.
This review will focus on Kevin’s “Teaching Points” available on the TAP website. It is a great resource, written casual as is this essay, and available for free and easy download for those with internet access. I strongly support free and easy learning tools because they “oil the wheels” of teaching. We discussed in class that a syllabus should be written clearly and it is important to do all that is necessary to avoid confusing the students. I must admit that I took portions of Kevin’s lecture that aligned with my preconceived notions on teaching and I believe that my peers did as well. However, I lean strongly on the side of the fence that believes in facilitating a good lesson for the students. The professor chooses the main text of the class. The professor does not say, “just go to the bookstore and pick out a text you think would benefit us all.” That means that the professor has the responsibility to clearly state the material and substance that the class will be utilizing to critique.
I have done something in the first two paragraphs of this essay that is of premier importance to performing as an effective professor: I have simultaneously attempted to get to know myself as a teacher and laid out my heartfelt commitment to my subject (which at this point is teaching in general). One of my biggest strengths is that I try to maintain awareness at all times. Specifically, I focus on what experiences have been beneficial and detrimental to me in past classroom settings. The most productive classrooms I have been a part of have been both casual and challenging. I think that is where the blog gets a big chunk of its bad rap. Blogs are almost always casual. However, some are subtly challenging and it is seldom that academics accept the fact that some blogs are really just copy and pasted critical essays. The same thing occurs in a discourse classroom setting. I have had professors who encourage me to lighten up and let loose in class. The best professors are those who can convey challenges casually. But, that’s my preference. It is important for me to maintain awareness that not every student I will encounter will be just like me. Some will learn better from a rigorous and standardized course. Therefore I cannot simply just lean to my preferred method. As the teaching tips indicate, I must maintain my identity and my integrity.
When it comes to taking risks, I need to remain within bounds and not get too drastic. Some of the material in the teaching tips and in Kevin’s lecture is directed to a timid professor who is seeking to find new methods to engage students. Taking risks like dividing up or segmenting the class are advised. I have no problem doing that and it is actually second nature to me. So, my main focus is going to be different than the typical new professor. I need to stay within bounds and not take too many risks. (Let me take a moment to make a point of awareness: I have noticed that I continually refer to the “typical” new professor or typical grad student. I know that I need to stop this false labeling. I am not sure if it is a crutch I employ or what role it plays in my writing about subjects like this.)
As far as class discussion, I am confident that I can initiate a surplus quantity of verbal output. However, my focus needs to be on quality and adherence to what the teaching tips refer to as “making progress towards course objectives.” I bet I can get students talking from start to finish. But, I need to ensure that they are discussing the actual subject matter and not simply tangential derivatives of the material. This is summarized by Kevin’s tip to “summarize main points as you reach them. Be sure to pull the discussion together at the end of the class, emphasizing the main points that you and your students addressed.” I think that employing another tip, the segmenting of class into specified time frames, will enable this goal. I believe I can have the class debating freely for 15-20 minutes but I will need to remember to summarize at the end of those segments (and possibly during, to avoid getting lost or missing any points made).
One thing that I hardly need to remember, because I am constantly aware of it but often unable to overcome, is my passiveness. This is particularly important to overcome in situations that may become confrontational with students. It is one area that I feel somewhat unprepared to handle after Kevin’s lecture. I will explain why. Kevin says that “both parties need to act together to successfully resolve a conflict.” However, this assumes that the student is acting rationally. In my experience as a high school and junior high substitute teacher, there were times when I would ask the student what it is that he wanted: freedom, relaxation, socialization, etc. I was a pretty laid back teacher in those scenarios and no matter what I offered to benefit the student, he was unable to work with me to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. In situations like that, I did what Kevin recommended frequently; I paged the assistance of security. But, I want to avoid calling security as much as I can. The teaching tips ask “Are your goals clear in your mind?” to which I answer “yes.” Continuing, “Can you freely exchange information with other person?” only this time the answer is “no.” As a result, I will have to draw the line somewhere. I will employ these recommendations: “Use your syllabus as a means for avoiding potential conflict. You are already clear about assignments, dates, breaks, right? Add a section about student conduct policies. Take them right out of MSU Spartan Life. How should they treat you? One another? Be as explicit as possible. Should your class sign a ‘conduct contract?’” I think if I set boundaries then it will be less disheartening when I have to call security if a students surpasses one.
The quest to construct the greatest classroom environment of all time is impossible if one is to believe that such an environment is static. “Think of the BEST [classroom] experience you’ve had. Now, think of the WORST.” At the outset of this essay I was trying to develop the greatest scheme which I would then attempt to replicate week after week, semester after semester, year after year. Through writing this essay, I have reminded myself that our students are a collection of different types, styles, and interests. My “best” experience will be somebody’s “worst” and another person’s “mediocre.” There is one thing that all of our “worst” experiences have in common: continuity. Having said that, I will be more likely to avoid a terrible classroom and upset students unwilling to learn if I use variety to provide an environment that is conducive to all of them, at different points in time throughout the year. I will try to use all of these methods throughout a course:
- Small group break out sessions
- Large group monologue lecture
- 90 minute lectures
- 15 minute segmented presentations
- Powerpoint, blogs, essays on paper
Maintaining variety is important so that the student does not expect to have a horrible classroom experience awaiting him at 8a every Tuesday morning. I feel it is my responsibility to give the student something to look forward to. This is not to say that it is my duty to keep the student happy. It is, however, my role to provide as many opportunities for engagement as I can. In doing so, I need to constantly be aware of my strengths and weaknesses.
- Strength: awareness of the differences in students
- Weakness: over-willingness to cater to students’ interests
- Strength: ability to provide a vibrant and varied learning environment
- Weakness: often lose focus on main goal and overall objective of course because of the task of maintaining a classroom daily
- Strength: attitude and personality will make me a student favorite
- Weakness: passive nature can lead to power struggles and problematic confrontations
With a focus on variety and adaptability to new techniques, if I maintain a constant focus on “big picture” course objectives, I will be successful. Ensuring that every student becomes involved will be a goal that is accomplished by presenting material in a variety of formats. My teaching philosophy will guide my actions. The syllabus will provide an outline of rules and a schedule of clearly expressed expectations. Close attention to feedback will enable me to make necessary adjustments. I am confident that I will be able to create an ideal classroom environment. Similar to a successful sports team, it will take regular practice and adjustments to ensure the most victories.