Learning to Teach is a Process

My experience with teaching is limited. During my final year of undergrad, I worked as a consultant (tutor) at my university’s writing center. This was not a job I applied for. The professor of one of my required literature classes approached me one day, after class, and asked if I was interested in teaching at the writing center. We had done some peer editing in class. I enjoyed helping my classmates with their papers, from brainstorming to finalizing drafts, so I enthusiastically agreed. Most of the other tutors at the were English majors with at least a semester or two’s experience under their belt. I was a history major, and new. I felt misplaced, like the professor made a mistake in choosing me for the job.

Chapter one of Palmer’s the Heart of a Teacher talks about anxieties like this. Palmer discusses the danger these fears pose in causing us, as teachers, to detach from the student, and from the subject matter. This is exactly how I first reacted. Intimidated by my fellow tutors who were trying to show me the ropes, I lost the original enjoyment I felt in helping another student. The first semester was difficult as I attempted imitate the other tutors’ methods rather than rely on my own competencies to develop my style. Palmer’s solution to our fears and fear-biased reactions is to self-reflect, to find the things that energize us, and to connect to our subject and our students.

This is something I have so far struggled with as a teacher, but it is a process. I experienced a similar process in writing. Finding a voice in your writing, especially in academic writing, is something that many of us find challenging. It means discovering yourself, and learning how to be true to that self, even as you explore subject matter and ideas that come from outside of you. Palmer describes this in teaching as merging the exterior and the interior. It is like bringing “I” into your writing. It’s allowing yourself to be part of your teaching and not just a vehicle for an objective subject and practiced pedagogy. Discovering yourself and your voice in writing is also a process, and it is ongoing. These are aspects I see in Palmer’s discussion of teaching. His idea that integrity in teaching comes from this understanding of yourself, and your ability to connect that self to the subject and the students, runs parallel to my understanding of a writer’s voice. I hope my experience in these next two semesters help me come closer to finding myself as a teacher. Gaining integrity in teaching will be just as much of a process and finding a voice in writing was and is.

Reflecting on “The Heart of a Teacher” and My Own Mentor Experience

I found the section “Mentors Who Evoked Us” to be particularly thought provoking. I decided to reflect on my own experience with a mentor that I had during my undergraduate degree. Palmer describes how “in this encounter, not only are the qualities of the mentor revealed, but the qualities of the student are drawn out in a way that is equally revealing.” Like Palmer, I was also the first in my family attend college. I met my mentor during my fourth semester in college. He ran his undergraduate classrooms much like graduate seminars. Instead of lecturing, we were all in a conversation. When someone said something important, he would write it on the board. He would try to provoke students into coming into answers themselves. At the beginning of every class, he would read a children’s book aloud (the class was western civilization literature part one). He liked to relax the class before we started. My mentor always said what he thought, with seemingly no holds barred. In a word, he seemed authentic. At the time, I was shy. I had trouble speaking in front of crowds (I still do, but it’s markedly better than before). I wanted to emulate his confidence.

I’ve been teaching in some shape or form for two years now. I am still growing in my style and in my classroom approach. I tended very much towards a Socratic seminar style in the literature classes that I was a TA for, and I attribute that choice to my mentor’s style of teaching. I am working on connecting with my inner teacher.

My thoughts on “The Heart of a Teacher: Identity and Integrity in Teaching.”

Overall, I enjoyed the article and many of the points raised by the author. It made me think not only about the teaching profession differently, but I also started looking at teachers in a different light. One illustration given by the author, let readers see things from a teacher’s perspective in a classroom. He talked about how in class he sometimes feels awkward or that he is not doing things right. Many times, I have sat in class as the student and felt the same thing, so it was interesting to see that teachers might not have it as together as students might think.

This is what I focused on most when reading the article and what I plan to talk about here. For me, the part of the article which hit me the most was the beginning section called “Teach Beyond Technique.” One thing I found interesting about this section was when it talked about being vulnerable in the service of learning. As I mentioned above, the author’s illustration of himself in the classroom showed a vulnerability I have never seen in teachers before. This thought that there can be vulnerability in teaching was something I have never thought seriously about. Over my years in school, I have had teachers I have loved, teachers I thought were okay, and ones I never really liked. For the ones I never really liked, I could never figure out exactly why that was. I enjoyed the classes and the material we covered, but I always felt this disconnect with the professor as well as with the material.

The idea of vulnerability and what that means in school made me realize that if students cannot connect with their teachers then they will probably never connect with the subject material they are learning. If teachers want their students to be passionate about a subject, they need to show that same passion by being vulnerable with their students. Along this same line, the author mentions one time when he heard some professors arguing if sharing personal experiences in class that relate to the subject material being taught was a good idea. The author said he heard the professors say that sharing experiences was “more suited to a therapy session than to a college classroom.”

Again, this idea of vulnerability can be applied not only to teachers but also to students. Being able to take real life experiences and apply them to themes from texts or in class discussions helps so much when it comes to understanding material. Whenever I would apply material I learned back to my own life, it helped me understand what I was learning. By putting it in terms I was familiar with, I not only got a stronger grasp of the material, but it also had a deeper appreciation for what I was learning. I enjoyed this article because it showed how teaching is more than just following certain techniques, rather, teaching is about being vulnerable enough to connect with students to help them develop a passion for learning.

Beginning with Anxieties

Hello there! My name is Emily and I am a new Graduate Teaching Assistant at Gorgas Information Services. I have to admit,  as I begin this “adventure” I have a lot of anxieties about delving into the unknown. While I have experience in instruction, it was one that was very “teach by numbers.” The classroom was governed by very strict guidelines that indicated not only what needed to be taught, but also the methods to reach those goals. On the other hand, this program seems to be focused on developing us as instructors in a way that allows us freedom in the classroom, which is new to me. This aspect of the program seems to be extremely beneficial as I look towards a career that is focused, in part, on instruction. Saying that I am eager to begin this process and to start getting my hands dirty is an understatement, but it is not untainted by a twinge of hesitancy at the unknown.