The Things I Did Badly: Looking Back on 40 Years of Teaching

Graham Broad’s piece reminded me of a short critique John Kenneth Galbraith did of his teaching: “How I Could Have Done Much Better.” The honesty of both is courageous and refreshing. Most of us were trained as content experts. We learned to teach by doing it, and not all of us are quick learners. Here’s a list of what I wish I’d learned not to do earlier in my career.

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Editor’s note: This column revisits and responds to a 2009 article for The Teaching Professor in which Graham Broad reflects on his first five years of teaching. We’ve republished Dr. Broad’s article here.

Graham Broad’s piece reminded me of a short critique John Kenneth Galbraith did of his teaching: “How I Could Have Done Much Better.” The honesty of both is courageous and refreshing. Most of us were trained as content experts. We learned to teach by doing it, and not all of us are quick learners. Here’s a list of what I wish I’d learned earlier in my career not to do.

Teaching Professor Blog

Assume I could teach without knowing anything about it and never having done it

I got my first teaching job in early August and was in the classroom three weeks later, with a text I’d selected and a syllabus I’d constructed. I figured I was ready. Having taken courses in my field for years, I was confident about the content and knew I could explain it clearly. When students (quite a lot of them) didn’t understand my explanations, I concluded that was their problem.

In the beginning, I never thought there was much to teaching. That realization came to me as failures in my classrooms started adding up. I liked being friendly with students—a laid-back, fun-loving, and likeable teacher. That worked until it became clear that students weren’t taking me or the course very seriously. I made tests that were poorly constructed, were way too hard, and focused on trivial details. I got angry and said things in class I shouldn’t have. The litany of mistakes continued beyond my first year. Unlike Graham, I taught for a decade before I discovered pedagogical literature and started thinking about teaching as something I should study. But as with Graham, learning about teaching saved the day for me. Even though I was less of a teacher for many students than I should have been, and even though teaching turned out to be more complex than I anticipated, I did finally learn how to do it better.

Lecture too often—and for way too long

For the first half of my career, I mostly approached teaching as telling. I got pretty good at lecturing and thoroughly enjoyed the performative aspects of teaching. I liked to make students laugh, be dramatic, tell stories, and regale them with fun facts about my content. Some days students would follow me back to the office and we’d talk. Well, I’d talk. I was better at answering questions than asking them.

I’m not against lecture. For the last half of my career I have despaired at how we’ve pitted lecture against active learning. It’s not about one or the other but how they ought to work together. That said, I (and many other teachers) still talk too much. Students do learn from what we tell them, but they learn more from what they discover on their own. That’s easy to see when you’re teaching concrete skills—a student can’t learn to start an IV without practice. It’s just as true when the goal is learning to think critically. Trying to do something on your own moves learning to a different level. Then there’s the motivation issue. My friend Larry nailed me on that score that when he asked, “Which questions are students more motivated to answer: the ones you ask them or the ones they ask themselves?”

Assume learning is the automatic, inevitable outcome of good teaching

It’s not an entirely bogus assumption. The components of effective instruction (repeatedly identified by research) are linked to learning outcomes. Students learn more when the teacher is well-organized, clear, and energized; knows the content; and understands learning. But I was so enamored with performing in front of students, I failed to see that teaching is without purpose or integrity if it does not result in learning. Of course, the teaching matters, but the keystone on which educational endeavors hang is learning. When learning moves to the center, it adds a certain authenticity to your teaching. All those stories I used to tell kept students listening, and they remembered the stories. Unfortunately, they couldn’t recall the points.

Nothing in my career changed my teaching more than this paradigm shift from teaching to learning. I started looking at everything I was doing—policies, practices, behaviors, activities in class, assignments—and asked, What were they doing for student learning? At first, I relied on my opinions: Oh, that’s working well. But I realized that evidence matters more than opinions. So I asked students, and I looked at their work, their motivation to work, their ability to correct their work, and their exam scores; I discovered there was a lot I could do to improve their learning.

Make judgments about students

For too long I made judgments about students’ abilities. With experience you get pretty good at predicting who is and isn’t going to do well in the course and indeed in college. But graduation proved me wrong any number of times, and then there were those serendipitous run-ins with students who reported successes I wouldn’t have predicted. I also got some letters—the most memorable one from a law office. Oh dear, he’s in trouble, I thought to myself. No, he worked for the firm, had gotten his law degree and wanted to offer me free legal services should I need them. My chin was on my chest!

Making judgments about students is wrong for three reasons. First, it’s hard to be correct all the time. Second, despite our efforts at objectivity, conclusions about what students can and can’t do bias our perspective. I graded several sets of papers without names and was shocked by the results. Third, and most importantly, students, especially those not doing well, need teachers who believe in their ability to learn and overcome their learning deficiencies. It’s not about being less than honest with students. The focus should be what success requires, not whether they can do it. The teacher can provide good guidance about where students’ efforts should start. It’s impossible not to form impressions of students. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to learn that I needed to put those aside. Every student deserves teacher confidence in their ability to learn—to do what they need to succeed in their courses and in college. For many students the to-do list is long. Some will fail to get it done. But every student should have a teacher committed to their success.