Monday, August 25, 2008

“How is a Professor Like a Chameleon?”

By Hillary Burgess
 
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 complete disaster!
 
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. 
 
Hillary Burgess
Assistant Professor of Academic Support
Hofstra Law School
hillary.burgess [at] hofstra [dot] edu
516.463.6568

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