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Teaching Resources

Talking Shop

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I Remember Professor...

Good Teachers on Good Teaching

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A Win-Win-Win-Win Situation

Viggo Mortensen '80 Remembers

Laurentian Reviews

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Table of Contents

Good Teachers on Good Teaching

We’re asking people right and left what constitutes good teaching, so we thought we’d better ask those who’ve had some experience at it—our own faculty.

Professors from across the disciplines answered our query, "What do you think makes a good teacher?"

The Air We Breathe

 When I was a child, it was elaborate stories involving my dolls. When I was an adolescent, it was figuring out my next sewing project. When I was in graduate school, it was planning my gardens. Now, it is teaching.

What is “it”? The object of my contemplation during those moments in the day when the behavior in which I am engaging is more or less automatic and the chances of my thoughts being interrupted are minimal—driving my car, walking across campus, taking a shower. During those moments, I might experience a “pedagogical breakthrough,” such as solving a perplexing advising issue or developing a new method for teaching a difficult concept.

That my thoughts now tend to turn to teaching is indicative of how central being a teacher becomes to one’s identity, especially at an institution like St. Law-rence. As one friend put it, faculty at St. Lawrence think about and talk about teaching so often that it is part of the air we breathe. Certainly teachers are not the only professionals about whom this is true; however, what that means for how we view the world is probably quite different. We scan our environment for pedagogy. Might that be a good example of this or that phenomenon?

Hmmm… If I were to make this change to the exercise, might it push their critical thinking a bit further? Hmmm… Would this simulation work as a way to teach the impact of that variable? Hmmm…

I would never suggest that being all-consumed with one’s teaching is necessary to be a good teacher. Being all-consumed with anything is probably not a good state of being. But just like being a mother, a wife, a friend, a daughter, and a sister makes me who I am, so does being a teacher. And having that role means that I see the world a certain way—through the eyes of a teacher. Maybe I can use this example to teach about the power of roles on our behavior? Hmmm…

Catherine Crosby-Currie
Associate Professor of Psychology

Uncover the Material

We first met as new graduate students at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst in August of 1975. That first day, we were assigned offices next to each other and given our (surprise) teaching assignments for courses starting the next morning. We have, literally, been talking to each other about teaching since the first day we met. Here are some “best teaching practices” that have been part of those discussions over the years.

* Learn the students’ names as quickly as possible, and call students by name. They are far more likely to come to class and be motivated to do the work if they know we are paying attention.

* Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate. Try to grade at least one thing from every student every week. This requires the students to stay on top of the material in the course, and enables us to know what the students understand and what they find difficult.

* Be absolutely clear about expectations. Most students will rise to meet the challenge if they understand exactly what is expected of them.

 * Prepare carefully. Probably 90% of effective teaching takes place outside the classroom. The extra time spent coming up with that great example really is worth it.

* Use a variety of learning/teaching techniques in every class. We need to try to reach students with many different learning styles. And it is boring otherwise, for us and for our students.

* Use technology effectively. It can be an incredible tool for communicating, motivating and illustrating.

* Teach the students, not just the discipline. A relevant quote reminds us that “It’s more important to uncover the material than to cover it.” The ultimate measure of teaching success is whether or not the students learn.

* Enjoy class time! Smile. If we’re not happy to be there, how can we expect the students to be?

* Treat every student with respect as an individual. It helps to imagine that each student is the son or daughter of a good friend. Enjoy the students. They are terrific.

* After 28 years of teaching and of talking to each other about teaching, we still find that there is lots to talk about. We’re still working on getting the ideas listed above right and developing the many other facets that are important in the complex task of teaching. It’s a great job and we’re happy to keep working at it!

Robin H. Lock, Jack and Sylvia Burry
Professor of Statistics

Patti Frazer Lock, Professor of Mathematics
and Chair, Department of Mathematics,
Computer Science, and Statistics

Listen Carefully

One characteristic that is crucial to good teaching is the ability to listen carefully to the students, and understand where they are, so that we, as teachers, can meaningfully and effectively connect with them. When we first start teaching, it is all too easy to start from where we are--which can be perceived by the students as a strange and alien place! I have found it a much harder challenge than I expected to gain a better understanding of where the students are.

One technique I have developed, to help me in this process, is to require my students to bring a question to each class on a 3x5 card. These questions are supposed to be about the material that we are studying, so they can be about the reading due that day, or about issues lingering from the previous class.

 I collect these at the beginning of class and read through them right away, to get a realistic sense of what the students themselves found most puzzling or most interesting. While I always have my own outline of what I hope to cover, I adapt this outline, if necessary, to address the students’ questions and concerns. Sometimes I organize their questions in piles that reflect my own outline, and pause to read the relevant set of questions when I get to that place in my outline. Other times, especially in smaller, discussion-based classes, I read all of the questions aloud at the beginning of class and use those questions to launch discussion.

I learn a lot about the students from these questions--how they think, what kinds of topics tend to attract their attention, and the learning strategies they adopt if they find a reading too difficult. My hope is also that this technique helps them learn that asking good questions is a very powerful technique for more effective learning, and helps them to make the connections between what they care about in their lives outside the classroom and what they are studying in their classes.

Laura Rediehs
Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Opportunity and Responsibility

Teaching, for me, is an opportunity and a responsibility to help shape and add meaningful purpose to people’s lives.

For many outstanding teachers I have had the privilege of working with, both at St. Lawrence Univer-sity and elsewhere, the essence of good teaching can be found in several multidimensional tools and methods. For example, the overwhelming majority of these individuals firmly believe that a mastery and love of the subject, coupled with careful preparation of the material, is key to a successful teaching career.

Alone, however, these do not ensure good teaching. The more personal dimension of teaching—the domain where the intangibles compete with the tangibles for importance—is equally critical. Here, interaction with students rises to the very top of the list because it opens windows for both teachers and students to understand the world from one another’s perspectives. For the teacher, this opening offers a variety of opportunities for empowering students to be active learners both in and out of the classroom. This interaction is also essential for students to feel both respected and empowered to learn.

 Good teachers invariably have a positive attitude toward teaching, expressed in the classroom through various overt signals like smiling, enthusiasm, and passion for the teaching and learning process, but also through listening and talking respectfully. All of these signals are indispensable for creating an enabling environment for learning and teaching.
Many of our most respected colleagues consciously make students feel that they are at the very center of the professor’s work. They know all their students’ names, give them extra time after class and, whenever possible, have an open-door policy to allow expanded opportunities for consultation even outside office hours.

Many of these outstanding colleagues are also known for their flexibility—they are not wedded too rigidly to the course outline and sense when the class is having difficulty plowing through a particularly dense portion of the syllabus. They are also “down to earth” or “laid back,” not afraid to balance theoretical explanations with examples drawn from either the students’ or their own experiences.

I have learned much from observing these great teachers and have employed some of their best practices in my own classes. The results have been highly gratifying.
In sum, teaching is about inspiring and challenging individuals to be lifelong learners while, simultaneously, nurturing in them a commitment to good citizenship at the local, national and international levels. This is particularly so in the social sciences. Finding the appropriate tools to impart this desire to seek intellectual excellence and sustained intellectual curiosity is, in itself, also a lifelong pursuit.

Assis Malaquias
Associate Professor of Government and Coordinator of African Studies

Tools for Living

People often ask me, “Can you really teach a student to write?” My answer is, of course, no. Just as some of us are born with instinctive gifts in, say, spatial relations or fine motor coordination (to mention two of my own deficiencies), the facility for language might very well be in our genetic coding, and beyond that, I can’t do much for the student who says she wants to be a writer but hates to read. There is no way to develop an ear without listening, no way to develop a voice unless you have heard the voices of others.

 Regardless of students’ preparation, though, I believe they can learn a lot of useful things in creative writing classes. Once you learn to recognize your clichés and to note how your creative brain has been colonized by bad TV, it’s impossible to remain complacent about how you communicate. The effort to find fresh insights and to provide more distinctive ways to say what you have come to say is exciting and addicting, no matter how fraught with frustration it is.

But beyond this training—of learning to relish in the making of sentences or lines of poetry, of mining one’s imagination for well-rounded characters and plots—a writing class can provide some of the tools for living a better life. The three ingredients of a beginning writing class—keeping a notebook, writing for an audience (fellow students), and reading literature with an eye to craft—teach a student myriad ways in which words are our bridges, our lifelines from one human to another. By keeping a notebook in which they practice recording the world as they see it—a waning moon like a dissolving cough drop in the sky, a nervous girl at the table in Dana whose hands move like darting sparrows—students learn to be more observant, to engage in active seeing. If something you write resonates with your audience’s hearts and minds—if you find a way, for a moment, to link your experience to that of your community—well, that is a joy. And when we read attentively and learn to appreciate the craft of good literature, we are studying the imagination at work. The imagination, fully stoked, ignites the fire of empathy, of compassion for our fellow humans. That, to me, is what a liberal arts education is for, regardless of the major we pick—to train us to take our place in our communities as more alert, attentive, compassionate humans. And when I remember that, I am convinced that there isn’t a more satisfying job on the planet than teaching.

Natalia Singer
Associate Professor of English

The Spirit of the Teacher

In thinking on what it is that makes for effective teaching I am drawn to consider the persons in my experience who have been great teachers. Behind the pedagogy, teaching techniques and course materials is the human through whom knowledge is transmitted. While a thorough understanding of the subject matter is helpful, it is not a necessity. I have had enlightening learning experiences with teachers who were learning with the students. I have also had disastrous experiences with experts in the field. Great teachers bring to their work qualities of humanity that enable them to connect meaningfully with their students, and it is at this junction where great teaching takes place.

 Here are some character traits I’ve observed in the teachers who have influenced my thought in the most profound ways:

* An unfeigned impartial love for all humankind, tempered by an understanding of the pitfalls of human nature.

* A passion for learning and an intense interest in sharing the joy of the moment of discovery. An enthusiasm for the subject, and life itself, that can find expression in any number of ways, from ebullient effervescence to quiet contemplation.

* Humility and the willingness to grow. Acknowledgment of the facts that 1) to lead well one must know how to follow well, and 2) you can learn as much, if not more, from the students as they learn from you. Indeed, these can be the most meaningful teachable moments.

* The ability to listen. To meet students where they are in their understandings at the time. The ability to get out of one’s self, to see the world through another’s eyes, to be sympathetic.

* Discipline with a balance of organization and spontaneity. The ability to plan coherently but take meaningful detours when they present themselves.

* Patience and kindness. Firmness with compassion.

* Seriousness tempered by a good sense of humor.

* Wisdom. A balance of idealism and practicality.

Styles may vary greatly, but I believe that the substance of great teaching is the flow of impersonal love initiated by and communicated through the spirit of the teacher.

Barry Torres
Director of Music Ensembles