Monday, June 11, 2012

Another anniversary - college teaching 44 years ago

Just as the other day was the 44th anniversary of my moving to a small city, today is the anniversary of my beginning to be a college teacher. I had taught a course for my graduate school before I was an assistant professor but 44 years ago today, I actually began for real.

Education professors can see college teaching from some interesting angles.  In American universities, our job is to assist young students who may not be all that mature and ready for full-time work to transform themselves from college students to teachers.  There are actually a great many kinds of teachers in this world.  After all, pets, politicians and predicaments can all be excellent teachers.  The main task facing people who want to teach is accepting the responsibility for the students while grasping the delicacy of reading students as accurately as possible.

There have been times when some authority calls for retired military personnel to consider going into teaching, thinking that such people would have the leadership and strong discipline needed to instill virtue in our youth.  Sometimes, such a background has led to excellent teaching and coaching but usually the teacher, especially of elementary and younger middle school students, needs at least as much skill in seeing fear, confusion, personal doubt in students.  The ability to nurture and to encourage is at least as important as being tough and demanding.

Many college students have no idea that some of their most beloved and respected professors have had no training in teaching.  Traditionally, it has been assumed that a professor must know the material to be taught and that the college student must be a good enough learner to learn for any professor who knows.  The notions of lesson variety, good testing procedures, use of self-organized groups in a class and other aspects of teaching have often been ignored or glossed-over.  Many universities are changing in this regard but it is still very common for a college professor to spend class time strictly on saying aloud what he thinks the students should know.  The practice of saying the words while the student makes notes to try to remember them was fundamental when universities began about a thousand years ago but today, we are in a very different situation.

There are far more types of degrees, majors and courses with a wide range of students who have many different types of goals in life.  The high schools in this country have worked hard to make secondary education matter which means that what was once considered a good curriculum for the early college years may be badly out-of-date and wastefully redundant for many college students.  When good, well-prepared students come to college, none of them should be wasted.  We need to seek education standards and practices that result in high levels of success for every enrolled student even though such an idea has not dawned on some professors.

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