Effective preparation and how to learn from teaching
My Bed. The shower. The kitchen. A packed commuter train to Birmingham. What do all these seemingly unconnected places have in common? They’re all places where I’ve prepared for my next seminar and, curiously enough, some of my most effective and efficient preparation time has been done in these places. Confused? I certainly would have been a few months ago.
The dangers of overpreparing
New teachers probably assume that teaching preparation involves reading as many articles as possible and ensuring that you know enough about the subject to answer whatever questions your students will throw at you. This is true, but only up to a point. One of the most common anxieties amongst new teachers I’ve talked to is that they are afraid that they won’t appear knowledgeable and authoritative enough to their students. But taking this mentality too far is counter-productive – not only will you find yourself over-preparing, but you’ll probably end up trying to show off this knowledge. In short, you will find yourself talking far too much. If the class think that you will give them the answers then they will be more than happy enough to let you do the work for them. This isn’t what university is about and it isn’t the best use of your time – or your students’ time.
This is where that rattling abomination hurtling towards Birmingham comes in. When I started teaching, I read far too much in preparation. I now try to limit my reading on the subject to a minimum. When I’ve read the most essential materials for the seminar I think about the key concepts I want my students to take from this. Then I stop preparing. Over the next couple of days I’ll think about the two or three key ideas that I want to get across and how I can communicate these ideas most effectively. This might be en-route to my next French class or while vacuuming the living room, so it doesn’t eat into my research time or other commitments. Finally, when I’ve settled on the best way of doing this I’ll make a plan of how I want to structure the seminar. This might involve setting up a mock inquisition, seeing if the students can identify words I’ve deleted from a primary source, or something a bit more traditional. In any case, if I feel that I’ve got those key ideas through to a good proportion of the class by the end of the seminar, then I class that as a success.
Learning from teaching
Now of course, there’s no reason you have to do this while making tomorrow’s lunch, as I tend to do. For anyone who has been teaching for any length of time communicating their message will undoubtedly come much more naturally. For this reason it is important to make use of the wealth of experience in your department, as I mentioned in my previous blog. Your colleagues will have some great ideas about getting essential concepts across and asking them will save you a great deal of time and effort. Equally though, I find that it’s important to try your own ideas out and be prepared to blaze your own trail. One thing that I wasn’t prepared for when I started teaching is how tiring it can be. Teaching requires a lot of attention and energy and I often find concentrating afterwards very difficult, especially if the adrenalin is flowing. Having asked around a little, this doesn’t seem to be that unusual, even among more experienced teachers.
But I also find that teaching is an inherently political act. Having twenty faces prepared to ask you questions or listen to your concluding remarks tends to make you ask questions of education and the world more generally. In other words, it has made me reflect more on how and why I am teaching the way I am rather than what I’m teaching. These are not always easy questions to answer, which perhaps explains why I end up thinking about teaching in such unorthodox locations. I would like to stress that this effort has definitely been worth it: I can’t apply that unnecessary knowledge of crusader principalities outside of that particular seminar, but I can apply my new-found knowledge of how to pitch ideas to an unfamiliar audience to future seminars, academic presentations, research proposals and funding applications. In fact, I can already feel teaching experiences improving the way that I write and present my research. So in that sense teaching can be very rewarding and, importantly, preparing for it need not take up all your time.