My first semester in front of a classroom, I asked myself, “Do I have what
it takes to be a good teacher?” After a few years of positive evaluations, I
ask the same question, but with a slight twist: “What will it take for me to be
a good teacher for this group of students?”
I hope never to talk about what other professors should do in their
classrooms, so I will limit this blog to my own experiences and let the reader
take whatever lesson he or she wants from them.
I’ve come to realize that it’s not what I know or don’t know about the
topic or about teaching that will lead to my success or failure in the
classroom, it’s how well I can connect with my students to engage them in the
material. And connecting with my students often means being a chameleon:
showing (and especially developing) different colors of myself depending on what
the students need at the time.
Last year reinforced this lesson for me. I was teaching a first-semester
writing course for the seventh time. My lecture notes were detailed and honed.
The examples I used were carefully tuned. The class practically taught itself .
. . except that it didn’t at all. And I didn’t expect that it would.
This group of students was a new, unique class. Sure, they were your
typical freshmen at this school, with an identical demographic background as my
previous classes. But what made this group tick - individually and as a whole -
was unique. When I would put the same example that made the light bulbs flash
above the heads of last year’s students, but all I could see were completely
blank stares, I knew that I had to reinvent myself to teach that concept to
these students. When I set aside extra time for a concept that my previous 6
sections had struggled with, only to be met with knowing jokes from this class,
I had to reinvent my lecture plan for that day to fill the time meaningfully.
I have yet to have a more telling experience about how I needed to adjust
my colors to blend with the needs of my students than with my first semester
teaching. I was adjuncting at two different schools. One school had mostly
middle class undergraduates and I was teaching an upper level class while the
other school had poor students and I was teaching a remedial class. If any of
the students ever switched classes on me, I’m sure they would have thought I was
schizophrenic because I completely changed my teaching style, classroom rules,
and demeanor between the two groups. I had to because I quickly learned in my
first few days that trying to impose the same rules on both groups was a
In my upper-level, middle-class course, we maintained typical classroom
decorum. Students would refer to me as “Professor Burgess,” would raise their
hand to be addressed, and would not engage with one another in class unless
instructed to do so.
In my remedial class, I answered to “yo” and “teacher-teacher” and just
about any other term they used to signal they wanted my attention. If one
remedial student didn’t understand an idea, that student would ask a student who
understood the idea to explain it to him or her, often without any
acknowledgment that I was in the room or lecturing. I quickly learned that 1.
the students could teach each other as well, if not better, than I could, and
2. the students who “got it” learned more and gained confidence by teaching
others. Mostly, I learned that these students needed to learn math much more
than they needed to learn “typical” classroom decorum and I had to pick between
the two goals. I also learned that more important than either of these goals was
building each student’s confidence as competent learners. The students needed
to know that they could learn, and sometimes that meant I needed to step out of
the way, and not worry about “teaching.”
So now, as I approach each new class, I ask myself, “Who do I need to be to
reach and teach these students?” And I know that all of my careful preparation,
lecture notes, assignments, and everything I’ve ever thought was “good teaching”
might just have to fade away. Most importantly, I have learned that each time I
change my colors to blend with a new group of students, I learn from them who I
am, who I am capable of being, and how much more I have to learn to be a
chameleon for future groups of students.
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu