Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Being the inexperienced teacher

Posted by Melissa on December 22, 2013

Andy Rundquist has a great post about the ways teachers do or don’t constructively support the professional development of other teachers. Andy does a great job capturing something that is often a problem as we become more experienced teachers, namely that it’s easy to become a teaching snob. Rather than sharing our enthusiasm for teaching and trying to engage in conversation, experienced teachers, particularly those using innovative approaches, run the risk of becoming preachy, which then alienates the traditionalists and intimidates the novices. It’s something that I’m guilty of on occasion, and as I do more mentoring of younger teachers, it’s something that I have worked hard to reign in.

This fall, I had a great experience that reminded me of just how important teaching conversations — and the tone of those conversations — can be.  I was teaching our 300-level electronics course; it’s a one term lecture and lab course that includes a mix of analog and digital electronics. By some enrollment freak, the course was almost twice as big as it has been in the past, requiring two lab sections. I was already teaching a full load so we invited an emeritus professor, Bruce Thomas, to come back and teach one of the lab sections. To say Bruce is an electronics guru would be an understatement. When he was a faculty member, he did some amazing work developing the electronics labs, and I think he has probably taught electronics for more years than I have been alive. In addition, Bruce is a wonderful person, who I enjoy spending time with and learning from.

As it turned out, Bruce didn’t just teach the extra lab section, he sat in on every class. I’ll admit I was a bit intimidated by this at first. I had only taught the course once before, and Bruce had a wealth of experience. Once I got over my nerves, however, having Bruce sit in on the class proved to be one of the best professional development experiences ever. Often after class, Bruce would shoot me an e-mail noting things I did that he liked, making suggestions about how he had covered confusing concepts when he taught the course, noting when he thought a homework problem I assigned was too challenging. While students were working on problems in class, he and I would occasionally chat about how things were going. And he was a pair of ears sitting in the back of the class, letting me know when students whispered to one another that something didn’t make sense but didn’t raise their hands to let me know.  It was fabulous!

Bruce and I belong to different teaching generations. He taught in an era when much more class time was spent on lectures and demonstrations and less time on student group work. In observing my class, Bruce commented several times that he was amazed at how much discussion there was and how engaged the students were in asking questions and sharing their thoughts.  I learned a lot from Bruce’s extensive knowledge of students’ struggles with electronics concepts, and he clearly appreciated that even a noisy classroom with much less lecturing could be a good place for students to learn electronics. Moreover, the experience was a nice reminder of how it feels to be the inexperienced teacher, and how a gentle, engaging, supportive colleague can create a comfortable conversation about teaching. It was a humbling and helpful experience, and one that will hopefully allow me to be a better mentor to others.

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4 Responses to “Being the inexperienced teacher”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist said

    This is so cool, Melissa! The idea of having such an experienced teacher sit through a class of mine sounds really intimidating, but it sounds like Bruce played exactly the right role. It reminds me of the coaching we’ve tried to foster in the Global Physics Department, but taken seven layers higher. Have you had a chance to ask Bruce what his opinion of the whole process was? My guess is he has very similar things to say.

  2. I teach high school physics with my local version of Bruce. Your post has me thinking about ways my guy and I can come together going forward. We’ve been stymied so far because it seems that pedagogies have become like religions — everyone has one, thinks theirs is best, and the others are rubbish. You and Bruce were able to get past that. I hope my guy and I can, too. Thanks for inspiring!

    • Melissa said

      I agree that often pedagogies can become religions. I think part of the reason this worked so well for us is because of the type of person Bruce is. That being said, I think remembering that we all have something to learn from each other is important. Good luck to you and your local Bruce as you try to have productive conversations!

  3. Arjendu said

    That must have been a wonderful experience! Bruce is a mentoring god — I have so enjoyed every single conversation I’ve had with him about physics, teaching (or anything else for that matter).

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