This week:

  • I tell you about my latest story, on the myth of the natural teacher.
  • I ask you to share your experiences about learning how to teach.
  • I point to articles about teaching you may have missed.

A Damaging Myth

As a reporter who covers teaching, I spend a disproportionate amount of time talking to innovators and experts. That’s understandable, I suppose, because I want to know what’s new, what’s on the horizon, and what ideas people have come up with to help solve longstanding problems.

But that can create an echo chamber in which it seems that every college has a top-notch teaching and learning center, every professor is experimenting with new ways of teaching, and every administrator has placed teaching excellence front and center on their list of priorities.

The truth, as many of you know, is that teaching is often given short shrift in academe. It starts in graduate school, where the emphasis remains on scholarship. It continues once faculty members arrive on campus to find that professional development is typically voluntary and often limited. As a result, many instructors learn through trial and error, often in the kinds of large introductory courses that are among the most challenging to teach. And it doesn’t help that the main measure of teaching effectiveness is often a review of student course evaluations, which are themselves flawed.

In my latest story, “The Damaging Myth of the Natural Teacher,” I explore the notion that effective teaching is an innate skill and not one that can be developed with time, experimentation, reflection, and coaching. The pervasiveness of that myth may explain the scattershot way in which teacher training is approached on many college campuses.

As I learned when talking to people at the forefront of efforts to change this dynamic, the lack of systems and supports for good teaching also puts students, and higher education as a whole, at risk. The general public is already skeptical of the value of higher education. The continued lack of emphasis on professional development, or a meaningful review and reward system for strong teaching, isn’t helping.

One of the people I talked to, David Laude, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said he used to think his job in introductory courses was to weed out the weaker students. Only when he became an administrator did he realize that those who struggled most were also the most vulnerable, such as lower-income students and those who were the first in their family to attend college.

“How could I have been so clueless?” he asks now.

This story will eventually become part of a book I’m working on about rethinking the first two years of college. I plan to examine some of the sticky challenges facing higher education at a time of rapid demographic and economic change. How can general education become more dynamic, for example, to help prepare students for an increasingly complex world? Is it possible to use data and analytics to engineer a better education? And so on. I’m just embarking on this work now, so stay tuned. I look forward to sharing more of my findings in the coming months.

Tell Your Teaching Story

As I was reporting this story, I asked people to tell me about their own teaching experiences. Did they have an “aha” moment when they realized that what they thought they knew about teaching was all wrong? Did they feel like the time and energy they subsequently invested in becoming a better teacher was appreciated?

I learned a lot about how young faculty members are acculturated into academe, and how a person’s discipline, colleagues, and institution have a profound influence on teaching culture.

Do you have a story to tell about how you learned to become a better teacher? If so, I’d like to hear it. Drop me a line at beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com or fill out this Google form. I’ll share some of the responses in a future newsletter.

ICYMI

  • Everyone wants to know how freshmen are doing this year. So Beckie decided to follow two biology professors to see what it’s like, for professors and students, to return to the classroom. Read her incisive, in-depth take here.
  • Some professors don’t seem to realize the huge distance that first-generation students perceive between their professors and themselves, writes Mischa Willett, an assistant professor of English and writing at Seattle Pacific University, in a Chronicle advice piece. Here’s how to close the gap.

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beth

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.