First Year Reflection

This post is the third in our third annual series of reflections by first year faculty members.

Cheryl Hunter, Educational Foundations and Research, University of North Dakota

As a new faculty member here at UND I was honored when asked to contribute to the Teaching Tuesday Blog. My “assignment” was to reflect upon my first year of teaching. My initial thought was, “that was a long time ago.” In 1997 I walked into an elementary classroom and was terrified- thank goodness students were all around 3 ½  feet high and too excited to notice my nerves. My students today are a bit taller and some a bit less excited but I still get nervous those moments before class. Even though I might initially consider 1997 my “first year,” in all reality, every year since then has been filled with “first year of teaching” reflections.

Every new year, every new semester, even every new class session is a “first” for me. Let me explain. To me, teaching is fundamentally a process, a process always evolving and never mastered. Yes, the content while essential is in many ways static. Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that there are not new concepts, applications, theories, and discoveries as new research and ideas emerge. However, teaching that content changes constantly, with each new session and with each new student. From the previous class session to the upcoming one, we enter the classroom in a different time and place with students who, while they may look remarkably the same (same pajama pants and flipflops or suit and tie as last time), have inevitable changed in some way over the course of the day or the week. We have all taken in new knowledge, theories, experiences that result in reflections and new thoughts. In many ways, we never see the same student twice. In fact, they are likely different upon leaving each class from when they entered. We may not ever even notice all the changes students make or growth they accomplish, we simply plant the seeds. Likewise, we are never the same teacher after we spend a day in the classroom, students have a profound effect upon us; this is not a one-way relationship and while I hope to impact my students I can guarantee they impact me.

So, if teaching is always an act of becoming, becoming a better teacher, then what have I learned? I guess I would say this year of “firsts” I have learned two things. First, never underestimate the complexity of the task. Second, students will forget what you say but never forget how you made them feel. Okay, I actually borrowed those sayings. The former comes from the Dalai Lama and the latter from Maya Angelou. However, they do summarize my year of “firsts” at UND.

Never underestimate the complexity of the task. Teaching is a great feat of planning, reading, thinking, reflecting, creating, … and that is just in the prep work! In the teaching act we have to engage, think on our feet, reflect in the moment, and bring forward storehouses of knowledge to share and explain to students. That is no small feat! But this year I tried not to recreate the wheel and finally realized that teaching does not have to be an act in isolation. We have great colleagues that have taught for years with stockpiles of wisdom and a wealth of resources to excite and inspire learners. I was so happy to learn about the Office of Instructional Development. Imagine, an entire office dedicated to the act of good planning, design, and teaching.

Teaching is part science; we know more and more about how students learn and can connect the brain and cognitive acts to good pedagogy. Teaching is also part art; we know that there is beauty in good teaching and harmony when those teachable moments arise and we feel the learning in action. However, both the science and art of teaching takes time, practice, skill, and commitment to the craft but not necessarily in isolation. I would love to see more team-taught interdisciplinary courses because not only do students benefit from the multiplicity of experiences and expertise but faculty benefit from collaborating in the act of teaching. I learn more about my teaching when I collaborate than when I enter the classroom alone. So, never underestimate the complexity of the task but don’t go it alone.

This leads me to my second point, as teachers we have the potential to imprint upon the human mind and spirit. It was John Steinbeck that captured the essence of teaching as an art and the medium as the human mind and spirit. “A great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit (John Steinbeck).  However, Maya Angelou reminds us “that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I believe there is another element beyond the content that we teach and the methods we employ. I can deliver the most amazing engaging class session ripe in content with the most recent research but if I fail to see where they are lost or when they disconnect then what have I accomplished for that student?

I was recently in a conference presentation when a discussant failed to offer constructive feedback and preferred to demean a presenter. While not a class, the situation was unfortunate because the opportunity for open and productive dialogue was closed. As an audience member I felt uncomfortable. I was not uncomfortable for the presenter because she was actually correct in her assertion. I was also not uncomfortable for the discussant in that his assertion was accurate but misapplied. I was uncomfortable in the situation because the energy was one of negativity, of an unnecessary assertion of power, and clearly changed the tone of the room.

As the professor, class facilitator, we perform a role that necessitates us to work toward honoring all perspectives of students, even those with fundamentally different beliefs and work toward building a classroom model that honors both the mind and spirit of the student by outwardly accepting difference, protecting against intolerance toward that difference, and moving toward constructive dialogue. What we say is important. What we do in class is important. But how we make that student feel while he or she is in our class may be the biggest take-away lesson of them all.

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