Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Reflections on teaching

I've had this post, or versions of it, rattling around in my head for the past week. As the semester/term winds down, and the reality sets in that I will be out of the classroom for an entire year, and I think about how I've been viewing myself as a teacher after having my view of myself as a teacher turned upside-down as part of the third year review from hell....well, naturally, my thoughts and reflections have turned to teaching. Specifically, what have I done differently this time around? Did I meet my own personal expectations for my teaching these past few months? Am I becoming a more effective teacher to my students? Did things go the way I expected and/or the way that I hoped?

Here are some of the things I've been reflecting on.

Coming out of my review last year, there were a set of things I wanted to work on before going up for tenure. One of the main ones was in being more thoughtful about how I constructed classes. For instance, rather than constructing classes around the material I wanted to cover that day or for that topic, I wanted to construct classes around the bigger ideas I wanted the students to learn: do I want this to help improve their analytical skills? do I want them to be able to tie this to something they learned last week? etc. I also wanted to be more thoughtful about how I organized a course, from start to finish, as another way to keep focused on the big ideas and "big picture" of the course.

I had mixed results on this. I did really well with this in the course that I've taught before. Perhaps the fact that I was familiar with the material already meant that I was ready to think about the course from the thousand-foot view. I came out of about 90% of the class meetings thinking that I really succeeded in striking the right balance between introducing material and getting them to see the bigger picture (and work on developing those other, necessary skills like analytical thinking). And judging from the students' responses on the final exam---which was structured to see how well the students met the learning objectives of the course, as well as how well they learned and could apply the material---this strategy was successful. I was less successful in the other course, which was an entirely new prep. I was not as satisfied with the class meetings---I often felt like classes went ok, but that something was missing. The evaluations reflected this, too. I know that I did not plan out the middle part of the course as well as I should have, and that's the part of the course that I thought was weakest. So I still clearly have some work to do here.

One thing I am very proud of was the environment and rapport I had in each of my classes. I enjoyed both sets of students immensely; in fact, I told my one class, truthfully, that their class was the one I've had the most fun teaching, ever. I chalk this up to being more relaxed in general. I finally feel like I understand the student culture here. This has made it much easier to interact with the students, both formally and informally. It has also made it easier for me to diffuse some potentially sticky/bad situations with students---I have a better sense of how to effectively have tough conversations with students, and these conversations are more effective now. (Which is great since my department colleagues have been zero help in this regard. Their idea of helping is saying "hm, I think you handled that poorly" after the fact. Gee, thanks.) I also feel like I've passed some magical threshold, and that now the students accept me. It's kind of hard to explain, but my colleagues who are further along the tenure track have said that they felt the same thing in their 4th year, too. I think this comfort level, on my part and on the students' part, has also helped me be more effective in the classroom, too. I am really happy about this aspect of my teaching.

So all in all, a mixed bag. I'm making some progress in some major areas, like course structure, but there's still lots of room for improvement. I've seen my evaluations, and they were better this time around, but not quite up to where I'd like them. But I was able to regain some of the teaching self-esteem that I lost, and I really did enjoy my time in the classroom this fall (which is nice, considering I had a major crisis of confidence right before classes began). And now that I have a year away from the classroom, I plan to continue reflecting on where I want to be as a teacher when I return, and on how I want to get myself there.


iris said...


I wish you a happy and sweet sabbatical year, however, I will miss your thoughts on teaching and research. I hope you continue with the same rhythm even if you are away from the classroom environment.

Best of luck

Jane said...

Thanks, Iris! And no worries---I'll still be blogging plenty about research and teaching during my sabbatical.

Saoirse said...

Hi Jane.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice on how to learn about computers. I had a terrible first experience with computer science. (My teacher told me that I would never be able to understand CS. I don't believe him, but it has negatively colored all of my subsequent experiences.) At the moment, I am mostly interested in self study, simply because I would like a little more background before attempting another course. I'd also be interested to hear your ideas about how to learn to program. I'm a quick study about most things, but somehow I have a hard time wrapping my mind around programming.

Do you have any suggestions?


Jane said...

Saoirse, send me an email (seejanecompute at yahoo dot com)---I do have a few suggestions for you, but I don't want to hijack my own comments. :)