Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Teaching is a Work in Progress

I think that there is a common public misconception that college teachers are "masters" of their field, that they know exactly what they are doing, that they know basically all there is to know about their subject.  As someone who has taught college English for going on seven years, I want to shatter that myth for you.

My teaching career thus far has been one of constant experimentation and attempted innovation, full of as many failures as successes.  I've used several different books, different syllabi, different assignments, different approaches to how I teach.  I have never felt like a "master."  Rather, I am constantly evolving and adapting to the changing needs and interests of my students, as well as my own changing interests and ideas.

While I can honestly say I am a better, more effective, teacher than I was six years ago, I am not an expert.  Sure, I have probably more experience reading and writing than the average college freshman, but this doesn't make me a "master."  It makes me someone who is maybe a little further down the road.

Instead of positioning myself as the "Professor" delivering information to my students, I  instead try to model my own interest in reading and writing.  I try to demonstrate, rather than dictate, why reading and writing and academic research actually matter, even beyond the confines of my particular courses.

Some students don't like this approach.  They prefer to just receive and memorize information, but this is not learning.  Learning is a dynamic process involving lots of trial and error, constant creativity, and good old fashioned hard work.  Often I feel the burden to help my students shed some of the false ideas about learning that they picked up in high school, ideas of "teaching to the test" and all that "No Child Left Behind" bullshit, which has crippled the imaginations and critical thinking skills of a generation.  In some ways, I regard my role as helping to rehabilitate and foster the creativity, curiosity, and intelligence that may have been squashed by earlier educational experiences.

To paraphrase Socrates, "The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know." As a teacher, I am not a master.  I'm a co-learner.  I am a facilitator of learning.  I'm still learning how to do this.  And I hope that, when I'm 50 or 60, I will feel the same way, that I will be able to look back on a career of constant innovation, creativity, successes and failures, and that I will never have the arrogance to say, "I'm a master."  Mastery is an illusion.  There is only learning.


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