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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

 

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Do you remember your very first day?

 

This weekend is move-in time for first year university students living in residence. When my daughter was small, I couldn’t even fathom the day when she flew from her “nest”. It all seemed so impossibly far away, and now here we are on the brink of independence – both hers and mine. Mentioning this impending event to friends and colleagues evokes a gush of memories about embarking on post-secondary education. We are instantly transported back to a transition marked by excitement, trepidation and absolute freedom. Selecting courses, finding classrooms, drinking a lot of coffee, and making lifelong friends. There was some learning there too, as I recall.

All these years later, I can’t recall the advice that my parents no doubt gave me prior to my first year at university. I felt pretty sure I had things figured out, and what I didn’t know I was keen to discover for myself. But the impetus to impart one’s hard-won wisdom is irresistable, so here are my key messages to you, my daughter, as you commence an incredible journey:

  • Be grateful. The fact that your main job in post-secondary education is to learn carries enormous privilege and obligation. People literally risk their lives to get an education. For many in our world it is out of reach. Learn as much as you can and make a positive difference.
  • Keep an open mind. You might think you’ve settled on a path, but look to the left and right as you travel – there could be other options and opportunities that you never imagined for yourself.
  • Keep an open mind about friendships too. The person sitting next to you may be far outside others you’ve encountered and known (and they might be thinking the same about you), but you might find in them an essential part to who you will become.
  • Read the course readings, even if they’re hard and boring. Not only will you learn stuff, you’ll also learn discipline. Sometimes life involves reading hard, boring stuff – the challenge is in transforming it into accessible, engaging, transformational stuff. Alchemy with your mind.
  • Be your real, true self. High school doesn’t generally encourage this, so now is the chance that every high school student has been waiting for.
  • Join clubs. OK, I admit I didn’t do this myself as an undergraduate, but I really wish I had.
  • Ask for help. We all need help, with just about everything. Ask your friends, your professors, the student services people…basically anyone. And it probably doesn’t need saying, but you can always ask your mom. Any time of the day or night.
  • Oh, and also have fun. Actually I don’t need to include that as part of my advice because you will do that anyway. You won’t be able to not do it. You are going to redefine the word fun.

 

In short: fly free, grow your mind and heart, enjoy the ride, and don’t forget to call home.

 

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