waterlily2 2018

What does it take to be a wizard inside and outside the classroom?

1. Get excited

Everything in the world is inherently interesting. And everything in the world can be made incredibly boring. If I’m passionate about what I’m teaching, chances are some of that will rub off. This isn’t necessarily a challenge for new professors – or those teaching a course for the first time. When everything is fresh for both faculty and students, teaching is an adventure. Maybe it’s not so much getting excited about what you are teaching, as staying excited – after five years, ten years, or longer. Exploring new and innovative ways to get learners involved and promote their autonomy over their own learning, and fearlessly interrogating our approaches to course content and the processes of teaching, can help to keep us in that ‘beginner’s mindset’.

 

2. Overcommunicate

This one is a ‘quick-win’ – not difficult to implement, and has a major impact on students’ experience in a course. Students’ lives, like ours, are complicated, busy, and sometimes chaotic. People don’t always attend to our in-class communications or instructions, and/or email, and/or written (print) communication, and/or online course announcements, and/or classroom handouts. The more channels we can mobilize to share information with our students about upcoming assignments, due dates, key information or course resources, the greater the chance that our message will filter through the “white noise” of multiple, competing pressures and priorities.

 

3. Respond to student queries ASAP

This follows from Point 2, above. For good or ill, people increasingly expect (and value) prompt replies to their questions or concerns, especially via email. And students seem to equate an instructor’s response time with instructor engagement and caring (‘instructional immediacy’). A speedy reply is not always possible, and email communication can be delicate at times, but I try to live by the “24 hour or less” rule and interestingly, students make particular note of how helpful this responsiveness is to them in their comments on course evaluations.

 

4. Provide the back-story

I’ve found that when students feel like an assignment, an academic decision, a policy, or a course expectation is unfair or unwelcome, it’s usually because they’re not satisfied that there is a good rationale behind it. The trick is, how to communicate this without coming across as defensive, or worse, officious? I’ve found that the elicit-provide-elicit framework in Motivational Interviewing has been helpful in providing information to students. In short, the framework starts with (a) eliciting the student’s understanding of why they think I am proceeding in a certain way; (b) providing a brief (very brief – not a lecture) explanation from my perspective; (c) elicit the student’s response (“What do you make of that? How does this fit for you?”). Reflective listening is an ancillary skill that helps learners feel heard and understood, and makes sure that I am able to engage with accurate empathy.

 

5. Don’t work harder than your students

Learning is active. It takes effort, involvement and application. If I’m at the front of the room lecturing and the group is passively listening, who’s working harder? It’s a challenge to create dynamic learning activities that engage students in co-constructing meaning, wrestling with new ideas, and practicing new skills. Admittedly, high quality curriculum design generally takes considerable work at the front end – so perhaps it’s more accurate to say “Don’t work harder than your students in the classroom”.

 

And yes, highly effective teachers have more than these five habits – but after close to two decades, I have found them a strong foundation and a good starting point. Enjoy the journey!

 

This post is adapted from a previous post , January, 2015

 

 

How do you want to travel?

 

Lately I’ve been thinking about individual accountability for engaging in learning, and the delicacy in creating a climate where each person in the room feels as invested in the value and success of the course as the instructor does. This means focusing on the process (how learners decide to engage – or not) as well as the content (syllabus or curriculum).

Courses and workshops represent particular journeys for all participants – teacher included. In general, learning facilitators establish and negotiate the content, pacing, climate and structure throughout the course. And yet, learners themselves decide what and how they will learn. Learning can happen in the absence of teaching, and teaching can happen in the absence of learning. The magic happens when the two come together.

Most workshops and courses typically start off with a conversation about:

  • Learning outcomes
  • Course overview or outline
  • Participants’ learning goals
  • Learning assessments.

However, it’s equally important for learners to identify how they will contribute. In other words, reflecting on how they will learn and participate, what might hold them back, and what would make it safe to take risks and participate in ways that can feel downright uncomfortable. I think these questions are crucial precursors to the usual content-focused beginning to workshops and courses, because a conversation about process sets the stage for reciprocity and co-engagement in the learning journey.

It comes down to a conversation about how we (both the instructor and the group) collectively intend to make the journey together. From a facilitation perspective, this means starting out by asking questions like:

  1. Are you (learner) coming to this class as a spectator or as a participant?
  2. What are some possible ways into the content that would resonate for you, and how could you amplify these entry points?
  3. What would it take to make you want to step outside your comfort zone?
  4. If you decided to take some risks in the interest of your own ‘deep learning’, how can the group support you?
  5. How will you translate and adapt ideas, knowledge and skills in order to apply them in practice?

It’s not essential that we ask all five questions, and there are a wealth of other questions we could pose. The key is our intentionality in creating time for all participants to reflect on their roles and on the nature of the voyage they will take with you and with one-another.

And the next time I attend a workshop (or a class, meeting, performance, celebration or other opportunity to actively engage), I will be asking myself: “How do I want to travel?”

 

Live More Intentionally

The turning of the calendar represents an opportunity for change. Who can resist a clean slate and a fresh start? This year I am determined to:

  1. Listen more, and do so more carefully
  2. Practice yoga every day – even a single pose
  3. Cut my cable (kind of late on this one)
  4. Start planning an epic trip
  5. Read War and Peace
  6. Write letters by hand
  7. Give others the benefit of the doubt
  8. Leave a smaller environmental footprint
  9. See more art
  10. Find reasons to celebrate
  11. Be kind
  12. Live courageously.

The year’s end is a poignant reminder of time passing, and time so precious. We miss loved ones who are no longer living on this planet. So we try to live each day with grace, gratitude and compassion – for ourselves and others.

 

 

Start your first class with a question … and a promise

As in any group of diverse individuals, learners come with varying identities, histories, levels of motivation, prior knowledge and experiences, as well as different wants, needs and openness to change. This means that teaching is inherently as much about process as it is content. By that I mean holding a dual focus on how people learn, participate and engage (process), as well as the substantive knowledge, skills and information required to meet your course’s learning outcomes (content).

In fact, I suggest that the process may be even more important than the content, given the rapidly changing landscape of professional practice across virtually all disciplines. The proliferation of knowledge in any given field is so vast and accelerating that the skills of curating, critiquing and assessing knowledge, and bridging knowledge to application, are the most important capabilities students can master. In other words, students most need to learn how to learn. 

It is tempting to approach teaching from a content mastery perspective versus from a “deep learning” perspective. Resist the temptation! By all means, prepare lesson plans, lecture notes and course reading lists. But create a space in the lesson plan for students’ own self-discovery, peer-to-peer collaboration, applied/experiential learning and exploration. Include as many questions as answers in your lecture notes. And approach your students as equal partners in the learning process: you have expertise and professional or scientific knowledge in your field of study, and they are experts in their own lives, including their hopes and dreams for the future.

Whether I am teaching in a face-to-face or an online classroom, I like to start the first class of every semester with a question and a promise.

Here’s the question: “What are you curious about? You’ve enrolled in this class on [insert course title]. What would you most like to learn more about?”

This sets up the expectation that each student has a voice in their own learning, and that they are at the centre of the work we will do together. It also reminds students that the course is more than just another grade or credit towards their diploma. They will actually get to learn about things that interest, excite and inspire them!

And here’s my promise: “My cornerstone commitment to you is my intention for this class to be among the top tier of courses that you have ever taken. I am committed to supporting your success in an outstanding learning experience – so I am eager to hear your feedback as we go, to help me deliver on this promise to you.”

While this may seem a tad grandiose, the promise simply reflects what every student yearns for in their deepest human heart: an opportunity for transformation, discovery and inspiration. I signal from the very start that I want only the best for the class, that I genuinely care, and that we are in this journey together. By modeling my own highest standards, I set an implicit example and expectation that they will bring their “A” game as well.

In short, I think the most important advice for a new professor is orienting ourselves to supporting students’ learning, versus delivering content. That shift changes everything, including ourselves.

 

smooth-sailing

Management is a way of doing; leadership is a way of being

When it comes to leadership I’m no expert. Learning to lead reminds me of learning to parent: despite the proliferation of manuals, when push comes to shove the answer is in myself, not the manual. Lessons on leadership are everywhere and ongoing.

Here are some of the leadership lessons I have been thinking about. These represent my best intentions, even if not always fully realized. This is about the journey.

Practice radical authenticity. Encourage others to do the same. The more we bring our true selves to our personal and professional relationships, the more joyful and connected we become. We are all connected.

When others disagree, get curious. Discover more. Go beyond valuing alternate perspectives  – fearlessly evoke them. Seek not to be understood, but to understand.

You are always leading, even when you’re following. Leadership is not about being in charge, it’s about supporting others’ success, modeling integrity, being accountable and caring passionately. Align how you follow with how you lead.

Disrupt the status quo. Homeostasis is the enemy of innovation. We are all always striving for that perfect balance, but when we find it that’s usually the signal that something is about to change! As Aldous Huxley said, “Every ceiling when reached becomes a floor.”

Affirm autonomy – always. No matter how non-negotiable the directive, policy, task, procedure…never forget that people always have the option of walking away. And when given an ultimatum, many do. “People are most able to change when they feel free not to.”

Live your values and learn what others value. Find avenues to link work with these deep, personal values at every opportunity. That is meaningful work.

In short, leadership is wholly volitional, decidedly not positional, and most effective when unconditional.

 

 

 

lovebot

 

Find your light

 

I’ve been collaborating with a colleague who teaches performing arts in putting together a “stage presence” workshop for educators and presenters. Our joint approach was sparked by a hallway conversation a few months ago about how stage and theatre performers have much in common with teachers: both need to foster an immediate, emotional connection with the audience/class, and both need to create and sustain an atmosphere of excitement, engagement and inspiration. In addition, all performers, teachers and presenters occasionally experience equipment malfunctions, bad venues, challenging audiences, and unexpected events. What separates the veterans from the beginners is in how we respond, improvise and model ‘grace under pressure’.

A common axiom among theatre performers is to “find your light”. That is, step out onto the stage and find the spotlight. Lately I’ve been thinking about the implications of metaphorically finding your light. In a classroom or lecture hall there aren’t usually spotlights and curtain calls, and the best educators are more occupied with facilitating students’ learning as opposed to occupying centre stage. So, what does finding your light mean in the context of presentation and teaching skills?

I think that in teaching and presenting, our “light” is our truest, most authentic self. If we can model authenticity in a group, with all of the attendant risk and vulnerability that entails, we encourage others to do the same. It is something of a paradox – approaching a presentation as a conversation versus a performance is the essence of great performance! Theatre ‘works’ when it’s a conversation with the audience (either explicitly in experimental theatre, or implicitly in traditional “never break the fourth wall” approaches). And while acting, by definition, involves assuming a character, great actors fully inhabit their character. All that we teachers/presenters have to do is fully inhabit ourselves.

There is something about stepping up to the front of the room that makes people freeze up. It’s a shame when that happens, because we are most engaged when we encounter others as their real selves. Finding your light is about shining your light – for all to see.

 

perfect daisy

 

What’s the ideal proportion of time spent doing the stuff you have to do, versus time spent doing whatever you want to do?

 

It was supposed to be a glorious day off until I had to schedule an urgent dental appointment. The only available opening was 4:15 pm, allowing ample time to anticipate the procedure and all its attendant aversive qualities. Did I mention that I loathe needles? An act of supreme courage carried me over the threshold and kept me in the chair.

The next morning, sore of mouth and jaw, I forced myself out of bed for an early meeting. Pelting rain. Juggling briefcase, handbag, umbrella, keys and coffee, I lost my footing on the slick wood surface of the back deck en route to the garage, my hot coffee making a graceful arc through the air and onto my just-dry-cleaned cream-coloured dress. Not a good look. Back into the house for a frantic wardrobe re-boot.

As I drove to work, I asked myself: in the ideal world, what proportion of my life would optimally be comprised of doing things that are enjoyable, versus the percentage of time spent in doing the myriad, often unpleasant or less pleasant, things I have to do. Including the things that are good for us. My initial calculation was approximately 70-30 (in favour of the more pleasant and enjoyable aspects of life). But then, I started thinking about values, learning, growth and expansiveness. After all, it’s the hard stuff that shapes us.

A couple of days later I’m still not sure what the perfect balance would be. Perhaps the proportion is supposed to vary, depending on timing and circumstance. For example, during a fabulous holiday it would be close to 90% in favour of doing whatever we want. In more challenging times, the times that really test what we’re made of, it can feel closer to 5%. I asked a friend what she thought. Her take was that there is no wanting or not wanting to do, there is only to be fully present in each moment (as in Buddhist non-attachment and mindfulness). Which I agreed sounded extremely wise, a lifelong learning journey in itself, and easier said than done.

The thing is, nothing beats the feeling of making it through tough times. The deep satisfaction of accomplishment, and the deeper happiness that comes from having made a meaningful difference.

After all of the rain, last night’s full moon took my breath away.

 

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