Friday, October 3, 2008

The Enthusiastic Teacher

A fellow TA once suggested I consider the mid-semester check-up. We've gotten this far, now what do you like about the lab, what do you want to see more of, what do you want to see less of? Although this advice is over a year old, I finally implemented it this semester. With any luck, I would get some feel for how the class was going - it's just hard to tell whether silence and the occasional sleepy student are reflections of my teaching or of the general atmosphere immediately before lunch. As an added bonus, hopefully the students would be encouraged by my show of interest in their opinions and progress.

In general the results are about what you expect from an anonymous survey. Actually, as I think about it they must have been relatively good. Everyone in attendance (18/22 students) wrote something. Almost half - 8/18, or 44% - either said nothing needed to change, or left the question blank (which I'm taking as "nothing" in another form). Four people just told me to move the class along faster, five people made specific requests on content and activities, and one person told me to be more enthusiastic.

It's the enthusiasm question that gets me. Everything else is either easy (make some group exercises, no problem) or out of my control (I've made an effort for the readings and topics to be interesting, but I can't guarantee interest for the entire class). It's the enthusiasm I don't know how to change. I received a few similar comments on last year's FCQs - one of my students had no comment other than "smile more!"

I can't say for sure I'm the most enthusiastic TA in my department, because it's huge and I don't see most of them as they teach, but I know I'm somewhere up there. I care about teaching. I asked to teach this semester; I didn't have to, I wanted to. I spend time on my lesson plans, picking topics and readings that I hope will be interesting, planning how to get them involved. If I stay in academia, it will be in a teaching-focused rather than research-focused position. So I know I'm enthusiastic. But how on earth do I convey this to my students?

It's hard to be bubbly and smiling when you're standing in front of 20 pairs of eyes that always seem more jaded or sleepy than bright, trying to figure out what to say next and how to keep their attention. I count myself lucky that I (probably) don't have stricken deer-in-the-headlights look. I'm there; I know what I'm doing is important, I have a point I want to convey, I usually have a specific moment I hope will go well, I devote all my energy to engaging the students in the discussion and making my topic real to them. I even make an effort to make sure I'm smiling. I really have no idea what to do beyond that. All the other things that come to mind that demonstrate enthusiasm, like fast talking, are not conducive to good teaching.

Perhaps this one student is the only of his or her class who thinks that an enthusiastic teacher more like the lecture professor, who jokes non-stop (at the cost of the lecture material, but that's another story). If that's the case, I probably shouldn't obsess over the comment. I've just had assorted mentors tell me about the importance of your students perceive that you actually want to be there, and I'm not sure how to do it.

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