As the new academic year approaches, I’m thinking back on my evolution as a teacher. My experiences range from tutoring second graders in science to explaining neuroanatomy to medical students. And, the bulk of my experiences, over the past 23 years, have been teaching creative problem solving, leadership, and entrepreneurship to college students.
Nobody taught me how to teach. There was an assumption that if you knew the material, or were just excited about the topic, you could teach it.
That was definitely true for me… The first time I taught neuroanatomy, I was also taking the course. It was a required course for my PhD program in neuroscience, and there weren’t enough course assistants. So, I taught the course, and took the exams along with the other students! It was definitely easier to teach the course the second and third time around when I actually knew how to pronounce the words. :)
Over the past years, I have learned so much about teaching. Some I gained through trial and error, and other lessons came from watching my talented colleagues. Below are five things I wish I had known when I started teaching.
Teaching is about relationships.
Knowledge is a commodity. Just visit Google, Wikipedia, Khan Academy, or your public library and you will find more information than you can ever absorb. Therefore, the role of a teacher is not to pour knowledge into your head but to motivate students to care about the topic enough to do their own exploration. This comes from building a trusting relationship with the students. As Theodore Roosevelt said so brilliantly, “Nobody cares what you know until they know that you care.”
There is no one right way to build this trust with your students. Each teacher needs to find the best ways for themself. For example, I always like to spend the first 5 -7 minutes of class going around the room and asking each student to check in about what is happening for them at the moment. I learned this from my Stanford colleague, Bernie Roth. This literally invites each student into the conversation, and allows the teacher, and those in the class, to understand what is going on with each student. If someone says that they are preparing for a big exam, for instance, you can later wish them luck. If someone had a bike accident on the way to class, you can check in to see if they are OK. And, if someone is excited about a visit from their parents, you can ask them about their family at the end of class. This small investment of time adds up to meaningful relationships between the students and the teacher, and significantly enhances the learning experience.
Teaching is about inspiration
Teaching is most effective when the educator understands that the majority of students will not learn the material in the moment, but rather at a later time when they find ways to integrate the material. Therefore, a teacher’s goal is to excite the students about the topic so that they are inspired to learn more. If students aren’t driven to learn the material, they are much less likely to integrate it.
Essentially, all learning is emotional. We know this from research on the neuroscience of learning. The more emotionally charged an experience, the more likely it will be remembered. Therefore, if a student doesn’t have an emotional connection to the material it won’t stick. For example, I have a strong memory of taking organic chemistry in college. It was taught in a terribly dry way with endless facts. I walked into the final exam feeling as though the facts were balanced on my eyelashes, hanging from my earlobes, and sitting on my fingertips. When the exam was over, I shook my head and hands and all the facts fell off. In contrast, I clearly remember being challenged to think like a scientist in my first college neuroscience class. We were taught the types of experiments we could do, and then asked how we might use those tools to address a particular question about the brain. I was fascinated by this prompt, and deeply motivated to successfully complete the assignment. Decades later I still remember what I learned, and I’m confident that this early experience helped propel me forward in my studies of the neuroscience.
Teaching is improvisation
Each course is different, depending upon who is in the room. The best teachers pay careful attention to the responses of the students, adjusting the content and approach to meet their needs. It is essentially an improvisational dance where the students and the teacher repeatedly switch between who is leading and following. It is not a performance where the teacher stands in the front of the room doling out information.
When you start teaching a new course, you have no idea how much knowledge and experience your students have. Some might need a lot of support to get up to speed, and others might know so much that they could literally teach the class. And then there is the class culture — each class has one. Is this an engaged group that is already sitting on the edge of their chairs, or are they leaning back, waiting to be invited into the conversation? As a teacher, you need to adjust your teaching to match the knowledge and energy of those in the room.
When I was in high school, I spent all my free time involved in theater, and did a lot of improvisation. My parents thought that this was a distraction that didn’t prepare me for a future career. In retrospect, those experiences were some of the most valuable in my life. I learned how to respond to whatever came my way, to stay in the present and, surprisingly, that there are no such things as mistakes. When someone responds in a way that isn’t expected or correct, it is the teacher’s job to figure out why they didn’t understand, and to help everyone get to the desired destination.
Teaching is not about grades
This is controversial, I’m sure. But, I just hate grades and grading, and so do most of my colleagues. Once you have established a relationship with your students and have worked with them for several months, it is very strange to shift into a grading mode. Each student starts in a different place, and has very different goals. Also, since my objective is to have students who are internally motivated, a big shift occurs when they focus on how they will be graded. Think about how demoralized you would feel if your parents handed out grades every few months.
Therefore, I never tell students what they need to do to get an “A.” Instead I tell them to “never miss an opportunity to be fabulous.” I also tell them that I have no problem giving everyone an “A,” but that the bar is very high. With this prompting, I find that students deliver more than they imagined. They raise the bar repeatedly as the course progresses. I’ve been delighted by the stickiness of this message. They’re hungry for permission to do their very best and to shine their brightest.
Teaching is about what you will remember in 20 years
Finally, the goal of teaching is learning — learning for a lifetime. Therefore, we should be letting our students know what we hope they will remember 5, 20, and 50 years in the future. How will they internalize what they’ve learned for the long term?
At the end of one of my courses, I ask students to craft a one page summary that captures their key take-aways from the entire course. I then collect all of the summaries and compile them into a digital book which I give to every student in the class, so that they have a compilation of all the lessons learned from different perspectives.
At the end of another course — one that requires a series of short essays for admission — I send each student their original essays and ask them to write a new set of responses based on what they have learned. Those responses are then summarized in a document that is shared with the entire class. Students deeply reflect on how they have been changed by the experience, and what knowledge, skills, and insights they will carry with them going forward.
It is an humbling to be responsible for preparing the next generation to address the challenges they will face in the future. Our job, as teachers, is to create the environment to make that happen. To quote Albert Einstein:
“I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”