Twice in the last couple of months, I had occasion to tell an old joke about teaching. The first time came at a teachers’ book club. The second when a man saw me reading school assignments on the train and struck up a conversation about teaching.
The joke goes like this: the first time you teach a course, nobody learns. The second time you teach it, you learn. On the third attempt, a single student learns. By the fourth iteration, the course should start making sense.
I’ve been teaching in universities and colleges since 2002, with 10 years spent in the department where I work today. Looking back, I see how a teacher’s understanding of the job piles up like strata on a ridge. A teacher’s career is a lot like the old joke about teaching: the job doesn’t start making sense until after many tries.
The foundation of a teacher’s career is their experiences as a student. Great teachers change the student’s understanding of the world and the self, and by changing minds and hearts, they inspire students to want to teach.
My best teachers taught me what great teachers do. Even though I wasn’t studying their method or technique, I took in their attitudes. Bad teachers taught as much.
The first years of teaching are a band of hard, frustrating clay. New teachers know the material but they will discover that they must relearn the material so they can teach it. Knowing to do isn’t the same as knowing to communicate.
I recalled panicked hours before lectures as I stared at my notes and asked myself: What should I do today? How do I fill the time? How do I make my point? What is my point?
I got past that stage, mostly, but with each new course I teach, I find myself back down in that hard, frustrating clay.
In the next strata of a career, the teacher must learn how to teach. The granular details matter: How does a teacher present information? Concerns about clarity in voice and delivery become a question. Do I project? Am I clear? Should I dress differently, reorganize my lectures, replace this reading, tinker with the phrasing of this question?
The big rocks, like grading, take time to break down. What are grades supposed to do? What does a teacher evaluate? What’s the difference between a B and a C? What are the outcomes students must achieve and how can a teacher fairly say students achieved these outcomes?
I’ve never escaped this part of my career. I’ve taught some courses enough times to anticipate questions and reorganize my material to take students sequentially through the story of the course. But my plow constantly unearths big rocks, so to speak.
With time and practise, a teacher achieves some comfort and confidence. Here, the teacher’s thinking about education grows fertile and is threaded through with deep-reaching questions. What’s the purpose of education? What’s the output – workers, citizens, thinkers or souls? – and what are the essential inputs?
Only when I reached that point in my career – which I came to recently – did I start seeing the connections between teaching and society, and the economic and moral lives that quilt the scholastic mission together. I sought answers in philosophy, from veteran teachers and most especially from my students. I still do.
Very occasionally, I glimpse higher levels of teaching. Up there, the best teachers cultivate humanity and harvest knowledge. They know what they don’t know about teaching but they know how to find answers. Up there, answers lead to better questions. Disciplines cross-pollinate and look less like distinct categories of knowledge. The best teachers know what they want students to become. They form students into free people.
Teaching is a kind of learning: it’s a climb upwards. The climbing never stops and from what I’ve experienced, neither does the falling. Anybody who’s taught even for a short time, and who cares about teaching well, knows this.
It is possible for teachers to develop through part-time employment. But like any profession, skill comes with time, practise and training. Schools that want to develop great teaching need to move away from the model of part-time instruction and invest time and resources into full-time teaching careers.
Good teaching is no joke.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.