Back From Teaching Bootcamp

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, 2014.

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, June 2014, Trinity University.

Earlier this month, I attended the summer Teaching and Learning Workshop of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), held at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.  ACS is an organization of private liberal arts colleges in the US South, including my own institution (University of Richmond).  My university offered funding for any faculty, especially those of us on the tenure-track, to attend, as this summer program can enhance one’s teaching.  I jumped at the opportunity to attend, admittedly, in part, to signal my immediate willingness to grow as a teacher.  I attended the program genuinely open to learning and receiving feedback on areas where I may improve, and I ended up finding the workshop extremely helpful.

The crux of the teaching training at the summer workshop is microteaching.  Workshop attendees were divided into groups of six, in which we stayed for the week.  In these groups, we took turns teaching a seven-minute “slice” of a full lecture.  Other members of one’s group participated as students, took notes, asked questions, and attempted to understand the material — but as themselves, not pretending to be a typical student.  The slice was recorded, and immediately played back for the class.  Before and after playback of the slice, the teacher reflected on how the lesson went, and offered specific concerns and areas of improvement for the class to attend to.  Then, guided by the teacher’s reflections, students articulated what they thought, felt, and experienced during the slice.  The major challenge during these reflection sessions was for the teacher to simply listen to the students’ experiences without responding, and for students to avoid giving advice or reflecting on what should/could/would happen outside of the slice.

As you can imagine, this process challenged each workshop attendee.  Finding a solid seven minutes of material, which would hopefully be engaging and understandable to a group of students outside of your own discipline, was tough.  And, seven minutes seemed to be just enough time to get started, but to stop just before getting to the heart of one’s lecture or exercise.  Many — myself included — find it strange, even uncomfortable, to watch yourself teach immediately after the slice, and then to hear how five other instructors-as-learners experienced the lesson.

This aspect of the workshop was extremely powerful for me — and emotional.  In each of the three slices that I taught, I was asked to open up about how the experience of teaching was for me.  This usually meant expressing self-doubt, worry, and uncertainty.  And, watching the playback offered even more opportunity to be my biggest critic.  Ironically, nothing the students said was ever as harsh as the things I said about my teaching.  In fact, the feedback was generally positive, including the sentiment that my self-identified nervousness was never apparent to my students.  (Although, several students mentioned my nervousness in their course evaluations of one of my spring semester classes.)  There were a few areas wherein students felt uncomfortable or confused, but I could readily identify how to improve the lecture in my mind.

This process is also designed to make us feel safe and braver as teachers.  We were encouraged to experiment and take risks with each subsequent microteaching session.  I took the program staff up on this challenge.  On day 2, I pushed myself to use John R. Brouillette and Ronny E. Turner’s “spit” exercise to teach social constructionism, even though I felt other academics would find the exercise silly or childish.  Fortunately, this exercise went well and was very effective.  This usually goes well in my classes.  But, in this context, the immediate feedback session allowed me to hear why.  These students were able to pinpoint their own visceral reaction to someone’s spit as driving home the point that “spit” (how we understand and react to it) is socially constructed.

On the third day, I challenged myself to give a lecture on sexual violence.  As usual, I agonized over this lecture, worrying that it might upset students.  The slice went fine.  But, when invited to express how I felt after seeing the video of me teaching, I got choked up.  Though not at a conscious level, I had found a safe space to express how charged the topic has been for me, in general and specifically in the classroom.  I left that microteaching session feeling encouraged and empowered to take more risks in the classroom — and to feel comfortable having certain emotions related to the lecture.

Outside of teaching, we attended daily plenaries that exposed us to various classroom activities and teaching styles.  Some of these sessions were devoted to reflection, either to process what we had done earlier that day or to develop goals for teaching upon our return home.  In a later plenary, we were asked to choose one issue that we had not had the chance to address yet during the week, which we would share with a small group and receive feedback.  I felt reassured to hear that I did not appear nervous when teaching, but feeling nervous and the pesky issue of self-doubt in general continued to plague me.  During this plenary, I received encouragement and many suggestions to kick self-doubt to the curb for good.

Clearly, I enjoyed the workshop!  Admittedly, I did not feel up to attending, as it was scheduled right at the point that I felt recovered from academic year.  But, it was truly worthwhile, providing feedback on teaching that you cannot find anywhere else.  I highly recommend attending ACS’s or similar workshops.