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Teaching Teachers to Teach


Thinking back on a career of some 30+ years in teaching, I am seeing glimpses of memorable moments.

Peace Corps, Liberia, West Africa: I am 21 and standing in front of a room of 55 Liberian fifth graders sitting two to a chair. It’s a classic Peace Corps moment. I am attempting to teach a math lesson and suddenly Joseph Zezay yells, “Kaali, kaali!” Several boys in the class leap from their chairs, grab their machetes leaning against the wall and jump out of the wood-shuttered windows and onto the soccer field. Someone has spotted a spitting cobra which must be killed before today’s soccer practice. The snake is killed, the boys return, the machetes are replaced and we go on with the math lesson.

Camden, Maine: I am reading a 6th grade student’s journal in which he is telling me that he spends his afternoons reading Playboy magazines in his friend’s father’s apartment. The father is often not there and they share the whiskey they find in a cupboard. Doug is the adopted son of an ultra-conservative Christian family in our community. I have told my students that their journals are confidential and now I am facing a dilemma.

Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon: There are 300 dislocated timber workers in my audience hoping to find the skills and confidence to begin new careers in midlife. For the moment I am their lifeline.

University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon: 28 novice instructors hope that I will be able to transform them from anxiety-ridden first time GTFs into confident teachers in the next 6 hours.

Teaching has been my lifelong passion. It has never failed to surprise me. It has always humbled me. I love the challenge and creative problem-solving opportunities teaching presents even when it is upsetting and frustrating, especially when it is magical and uplifting. Working with these challenges and intriguing situations
has fueled my passion whether I was teaching a class on my own or working with instructors as I have done for the last 21 years in the Teaching Effectiveness Program.

The most significant thing I’ve learned about teaching teachers is that listening is more important than ‘fixing.’ It took me some time to realize this. My first inclination when faced with any problem is to begin finding a solution. When you listen well you receive critical contextual information. Each person has a unique story even when you initially think what they are describing fits into a familiar scenario. Oh, yeah. They are all looking at you with glazed expressions. Well, here’s how you can get them talking….

From my experience, we teach who we are as well as the content of our disciplines. Sometimes it is who we are that students remember long after the material in the course is forgotten. Sometimes who we are is a model of who a student wants to become. An exercise at the end of the six-hour Basic Teaching Skills training offered in the fall is to have participants make a list of three of the ‘best teachers’ they have ever had. Then they are asked to talk briefly about one of their choices and explain why that name is on their list. I love hearing these stories. Often it is someone who inspired them to go into their discipline. The word passionate comes up again and again. They describe people who took time to mentor them, saw their potential and helped them gain the confidence to pursue a graduate degree.

Franklin Nelick, an English professor at the University of Kansas, was on my Best Teacher list. I had him for several classes my freshman year. He was the kind of teacher who had a following. His classes were difficult and I would leave with my head swimming in confusion, yet motivated to untangle my thoughts. One thing he said has stayed with me for the rest of my life. He said, “Bad teaching is answering questions that haven’t been asked.”

Dr. Nelick had died by the time I was considering contacting him so I never told him directly how significantly he had influenced my thinking, my life’s work. People often ask me to describe an effective teacher. And I am hard-pressed to come up with one description.  I’d like to leave you a comment describing Dr. Nelick that I found on a random bike forum called Word of Mouth:

“I guess the most memorable mentor I have had, was a college English teacher named Franklin Nelick, at KU ca. 1958-59. He taught poetry and other literature from his heart, and from a broad humanist context, with a forcefulness and passion that permanently woke up the sleepy Midwest minds of his students. His classrooms were packed and non-enrolled students would stand in the back and in the doorway sometimes just to listen.” JonR

Georgeanne Cooper has been Director of the Teaching Effectiveness Program since 1991. She will be retiring at the end of June. In lieu of a more traditional reception farewell, Georgeanne has asked that anyone interested send a picture (preferably not an academic headshot) and a few words about teaching – what it has taught you, what you love about it, what you have learned from your students. Please send to gcooper@uoregon.edu  Ever the model, this post is Georgeanne’s  reflection on teaching and its meaning. We will miss you on campus, Georgeanne, but we are happy you are moving on ‘to do other things’ of delight to you! – TEP staff

 

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