Educating the Teacher: Thoughts on Teaching New Material

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Reprinted with permission from The Teaching Professor, March, 2010.

I have discovered over 18 years of teaching that one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of my job is figuring out how to teach new material. New material often presents challenges born of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with a text or a subject, but new material also provides a way for the teacher to grow and learn. As it is with students, though, so it is with teachers: growing and learning take time. Teachers cannot expect to be comfortable with new material in short order. Rather, the process begins with study and review and, more importantly, bears intellectual fruit only in the classroom, where again and again students educate the teacher, showing him or her what limits to place on new material.

The program in which I teach is interdisciplinary and in the past two years has revamped itself, so I have had to familiarize myself with some new texts and subjects. Although the program emphasizes critical skills, and the courses are not discipline-specific, preparing to cultivate critical skills using new texts on subjects such as disease and urban planning can be challenging for someone trained in English. One of the texts I teach, for instance, is Vaccination against Smallpox by Edward Jenner. I first taught this text at the beginning of the 2008–2009 academic year, and the experience was unique. I had never before taught a text quite like this one. In preparing to teach it, I made plentiful annotations, inserted scraps of paper between pages that contained material I thought was worthwhile to cover, and generally tried to learn something about the smallpox virus. In short, I planned my classes on Vaccination against Smallpox in a sort of pedagogical vacuum, having no classroom experience with this specific text or subject to guide me.

I have now taught the text several times and have become more fully aware of something that I have known for a long time: The best preparation for teaching is teaching. Given the limited contact time I have with my students each week, I have to focus on those areas of texts that will help me to fulfill my critically based mandate. Before I taught Vaccination against Smallpox for the first time, I let my overall teaching experience guide me in determining which parts of the text would best help me achieve this goal. Much of what I focused on for use in the classroom had value, but I focused on too much. It was classroom experience that taught me what parts of Vaccination against Smallpox to emphasize. Most classes, for instance, have responded well to Jenner’s thoughts on (what amounts to) the speciation of diseases, smallpox in particular, or to his attempts to falsify his hypothesis in his case studies. Experience, in other words, has given me a better idea of what parts of the material will pique students’ interest and involve them more readily in the critical analysis so important to my pedagogical goal.

Before actually teaching this text and others on my interdisciplinary list, I could only surmise what would be effective and what would not. To have held too rigidly to my surmise would have been to neglect an important preparatory tool: student reaction. To teach is to learn how students are responding to a lesson and to alter one’s approach accordingly. This is not to gainsay the value of annotation, research, or faculty workshops in preparing to teach new (or even old) material, but to highlight the importance of classroom experience in effectively honing pedagogy. In this sense, teacher preparation is continually occurring, both in and out of the classroom.

In summary, before there is classroom experience a teacher has to depend on his or her overall experience, on research, and on peer wisdom. However, once the teacher has classroom experience with material, what happens in the classroom becomes an indispensable tool in preparing to teach that material the next time. Sticking rigidly to a preconceived plan or trying to cover too much, as I am often initially tempted to do, leads to poor teaching. After 18 years my urge is still to teach this way, but I am learning that fighting this urge and paying more attention to students’ comments and reactions as part of my ongoing “preparation” yields pedagogical rewards for the students and me.

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