Teaching. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

May 04 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Like many in my position, I have about as much formal teaching training as I do formal gardening or cooking training. That's not to say that I can't cook a mean meal from stuff I've grown myself, but I've learned through seeing what works for others and trial and error. Teaching is no different, but I've been doing it formally (as in, full control over an entire course) for a shorter period of time. And whereas I see teaching as important, there also remains the fact that it can't be a priority for me at this stage of my career.

That said, for a variety of reasons (most notably, Broader Impacts, yo) I have gotten involved in a program aimed at producing teaching modules for grade 6-12 science classes. For each module there is a team of one person who teaches at a university and one person who teaches at either the middle or high school level. Nearly everyone involved has a formal background in education and is well-versed in the jargon that goes along with that training. In addition, the 6-12 teachers have an array of state requirements and testing that they have to conform with, creating a new layer of complexity.

The meetings we have as a group often make me feel a bit like I do when traveling in a country where I have a semi-decent grasp on the language - I know enough to follow the conversation and can clumsily contribute, but spend much of the time just trying to keep up. It's a fascinating experience for me seeing the approach to teaching that is taken at the 6-12 level and there's no shortage of elements that I could see employing in my own teaching. For that reason, I really think that I'm going to be taking as much or more out of this experience than I will be contributing, which is not necessarily what I thought when I agreed to join in.

Sometimes it's the unexpected benefits of starting a new project or collaboration that make the biggest impact.

5 responses so far

  • Dr. O says:

    Catchy title.

    I was involved with a similar-sounding project when I was an undergrad, but aimed at K-6 grade levels. Of course, I was surrounded by undergrads who had little to no training as well, so no biggie. It was still one of the most rewarding and best learning experiences in teaching in which I have ever been involved. I can only imagine how fulfilling it might be if I'd a chance to work alongside others who really KNEW their stuff when it comes to teaching.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Does it really make sense that we professors spend a good bit of our professional life teaching without having had any formal training? I suppose most of us teach, as best we can, how we would like to have been taught. I didn't want to spend a lot of time being unsuccessful, so I did a bit of reading and talking with knowledgable colleagues. I got better at it over time. We hired one faculty member who had had a teaching postdoc. So maybe there is some recognition that university level teaching needs to be done better.

  • I've spent several summers working with science teachers who knew a lot about teaching, but very little about the science they were supposed to be teaching. Its an interesting experience, being a setting where those of us with science education are supposed to teach (communicate effectively to) professional teachers (communicators), when one of the reasons that we are in the fields of our choice may be that we don't really like social situations. I did learn a lot about how to be an effective communicator and disciplinarian that high school and middle school teachers have to be. Not enough to be able to implement those skills, but enough to know that a job where teaching isn't why I was hired, (though it is why I'm being paid) is an easier niche for me to fill.

  • GMP says:

    begin tangential rant
    Now that I have a kid in middle school, I am fairly disheartened with the quality of
    instruction. Middle school teachers don't have enough specialized education in given subjects nor do they specialize in teaching any subjects (at least in my state, which ranks very high in terms of public school quality). I understand that their background in education is invaluable, but what I see in my son's education leaves much to be desired. It may not be the teachers, but rather the school system. Still, I am quite disappointed.

    Where I went to school, teachers grade 5 and onward all had BS in a specific discipline and taught the courses in that discipline (I had biology starting 5th grade, physics starting in 6th, history and geography since the 5th, chemistry since the 7th, math of course since the 5th, art and music as well, two foreign languages)... What I see with my son is that everything is so.... Fluid. And there is very little homework. He is near the top of his class in math but I would not consider his skills to be stellar by any stretch. After a solid start in grades K-3, the quality of instruction seems to go downhill from there... Too much is left to the kids to figure out for themselves, and once they do, the loop is never closed -- they are not given efficient techniques to deal with problems. And did I say there's not enough homework?
    Example: he often comes home with only a "challenge question" (today's pearl was "What was the name of the theater where Abe Lincoln was murdered?") How is this enough homework? Where are math problems? Where is writing? WTF? And god forbid that there be any foreign languages anywhere... I am no longer surprised that my college students are as uneducated as they are. There seems to be little depth and little breadth to their education prior to college, and not everything can be made up in college...
    Sure, we can work with him, but while I am well-qualified to offer supplementary instruction in math, physics, and chemistry, I am not sure I should be tutoring him in biology (it's been a long time since my frog-dissecting days), writing (in English), or social sciences. And what are those kids supposed to do who don't have parents with advanced degrees? Whose parents perhaps don't even have a high school diploma? Seems to me they are royally screwed.
    end rant

  • mcshanahan says:

    Thanks, this totally made me smile. I work with some
    partnership organizations and so often the relationship is set up
    to be one way - with teachers seen to have little to share with
    those from science. This sounds like a great
    collaboration.

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