Last week, Chris Buddle wrote a blog post, Learning to Teach: 10 tips for Professors. As an educator and “new” lecturer, I wanted to take some time to reflect on his post and my experience. I’ve spent time in elementary schools teaching and now, I’m just about to fulfill the requirements for my Masters of Arts in Education degree. Given my experience with teaching, I wanted to take some time to reflect on my most recent teaching experience: lecturing for a 300 level course.
I have spent the greater portion of my education career training to be a teacher and in classrooms with students. I have worked with a range of students; I’ve seen the silly sides of grade one girls and boys, the keenness of grade fives students, the turbulent years of grade seven and the various skill levels of third and fourth year students. As a teacher, I’m a fan of integrating arts-based learning approaches into my teaching practice. I have a history of dressing up to portray different fictional characters and having my students participate in drama activities.
For years now I’ve worked as a teaching assistant at two universities, both in third and fourth year level courses. Most of the time I’ve led group discussion, attended classes and graded papers. While it has been rewarding, it’s also been difficult; the teacher in me was itching to stand up and lead the class. Fortunately, this past semester, I was given the opportunity to lead a lecture for a 300 level course. The lecture I led was about how to teach ethics education to elementary school students. To me, it was the perfect opportunity to gain experience as a university lecturer and blend my arts-based approach to teaching. So, how did it go?
Overall, I would say it went well – not awesome, not horrible. It was definitely a different experience than working with elementary school-aged children. I separated my lecture time into two distinct blocks. During the first half of the lecture, I had the students participate in tableau (drama) activities and showed them how drama could be used to teach ethics education. Initially there was some student resistance to participate in the activity, as no one wanted to volunteer. I know you’re thinking, “well no one wants to volunteer for a drama activity,” but if these students are going to be teachers, they need to know how to integrate different approaches into their teaching practice! Right away I could feel the difference between teaching elementary school and university students. As I looked out over the crowd, I felt that the students were somewhat jaded; they wanted me just to “give them the material” and sit there.
After the activities, which once they got going, went very well, I moved onto the “lecture.” This is where I struggled. When you “teach” in classrooms of 35 students who are eager to leave their seat and write on the chalkboard, they get to do most of the “teaching.” I view my role in a classroom as a learning facilitator, not a teacher. In the lecture setting, I struggled with the whole “lecturing” bit. I hated standing at the front of a classroom with a PowerPoint and telling students what they have to learn. This is not how I teach in an elementary classroom. My rule of thumb for teaching is I should never talk for more then 15 minutes (at a maximum!) and the rest of the hour time frame should be dedicated to learning activities. This philosophy was difficult to execute in a higher education setting, both because of my inexperience but also because I only had so much time to share the “important” information. I felt that I had to lecture! Looking back, I would have done things differently. I would have stuck to my guns and avoided “lecturing” for longer than 15 minutes.
So, what are my take away lessons from this teaching experience (and others)?
- Plan ahead – but not too much. Chris mentioned that planning ahead can be tricky. I agree. Just for this one class, my plans changed constantly. Your lessons have to be tailored to the students’ needs.
- DO over-prepare – for the class, that is! For any class, my philosophy is always to have more then less, especially if you are doing hands on activities. In my lecture, I knew that my drama activities could go either way, so I had to have extra material planned incase the lesson didn’t go as expected. Sometimes, students can work through activities much quicker then expected. This is where I would say…
- Slow down – This is something Chris talked about, too. Sometimes teachers try to cover too much and are scrambling to get in material. It’s important that students have the opportunity to work through things, especially when we ask questions! My rule of thumb is count to 10 before I let someone answer a question. I want to give the students time to think without pressure. Remember: silence can be a good thing! It’s also important to slow students down, too. Sometimes they can work quickly through activities and end up missing the “important stuff.”
- Get the students moving or actively involved – I know it can be difficult, but I believe it’s really important that lessons aren’t sterile. I’m not saying that every lesson has to be new and innovative, but try and aim for an “active” lesson every other lesson, or create a guideline that suits your students’ needs. This idea links with Chris’ notion of being innovative. In my lecture, once I got my students moving, they were laughing and there was definitely a lighter feel to the classroom.
And always, always, always…
- Reflect – As teachers, reflection is essential for professional growth. We need to evaluate how things went, what strategies worked, and what didn’t. More often then not, you can get a sense of how your lecture went from the atmosphere in the class. For example, in my lecture, the drama activity went really well, but the lecture wasn’t awesome (I was nervous and went a little fast). Looking back, I would have structured my time differently. I would have followed my talking/activity rule. Instead of blocking time (i.e. drama and lecture), I would have integrated both components more efficiently.
Overall, I think it’s important to remember that every teaching experience is a lesson. We are never going to be perfect teachers. Some lessons are going to be better than others, but it’s what we take away from our lessons that matter. All in all, I am forever grateful to have had this learning experience. It felt good to get back into the classroom and it has provided me with rich internal dialogue. I can honestly say that it has made me a better teacher.