Teaching teachers about teaching students.

Author:Becker, David M.

Teachers are accustomed to teaching students, but experienced teachers must also teach teachers. In some instances, law professors are asked to visit and evaluate the classes of non-tenured colleagues. Often evaluations include advice that is intended to improve the subject's teaching, and this advice may be the most important component of the total process. More often, perhaps, law professors are asked to mentor young colleagues by the school's dean or directly by the young colleague herself. Inevitably, such mentoring involves guidance respecting the production of scholarship, but it almost always includes instruction about teaching.

What is it that one teacher can and should convey to another, especially when classroom observations suggest problems and a real need for improvement? The temptation is to say: "Come watch me and do as I do." Yet even when the recipe for success is not this brazen, the package of advice may amount to the same thing, especially when it is replete with specific instruction that invariably begins: "Here is the way I would do it." Yet is "do as I do" ever a sound approach? If not, what is? Are there any constants to a wise approach to teaching teachers about teaching students? What are the ingredients of successful teaching and can they be taught? (1) This essay examines these questions and attempts to identify some of the things that one may do to improve teaching, at least around the edges.


    My recollections as a student a long time ago and my professional experience as a teacher suggest that effective teachers come with a variety of styles and personalities. There is no one model for success that everyone must copy. I have observed both effective and ineffective teachers in law school who either lecture all of the time, most of the time, or some of the time. I have also observed both effective and ineffective teachers who use versions of the Socratic method all of the time, most of the time, or some of the time. I have known effective teachers who, outside of the classroom, are outgoing, engaging, articulate, and friendly, but I have also known ineffective teachers with the same personality. Further, I have known effective teachers who, outside of the classroom, are reticent (even to the point of not speaking unless spoken to), distant, uninteresting, and inarticulate in casual speech, but I have also known ineffective teachers with the same traits. In short, I am often surprised by the lack of correlation between a teacher's persona and effectiveness inside and outside of the classroom.

    Nevertheless, even though I am unable to predict teaching efficacy based upon personalities I observe outside of the classroom, I am confident that I know excellent teaching when I see it. (2) This is probably true for other observers as well, among both teachers and students. To be sure, even though the best teachers have critics in addition to advocates, there is usually a consensus over time among students and faculty observers. Effective teaching, therefore, is clearly recognizable. Yet what are the ingredients one observes that confirm its existence? If classroom styles and methodology, and personalities within and beyond the classroom, can differ markedly are there consistent ingredients of effective teaching that one can readily identify? or are we simply left with an end product that we know exists when we see it?

    Two stories involving young colleagues of mine come to mind. The first concerns a man who was struggling with his student-teaching evaluations. He desperately wanted to improve, and strongly believed that if the consumers were unhappy with his product he did not want to continue as a teacher. He asked me to attend some classes. I observed interactive engagement with students that might be described as a gentle version of the Socratic method. His questions were stated with care and clarity and so were his hypotheticals. He listened carefully to student answers and followed up with other questions that were spontaneous and truly responsive. During the course of the hour he involved and integrated numerous students, and periodically punctuated his remarks with useful summaries. I took copious notes that reflected primarily his orchestration of the class instead of the substance of the material covered in his course on criminal law. After a week of classes, I reviewed these notes carefully. I shared them with another colleague who was an accomplished teacher. This colleague liked what he saw based upon these notes. Nevertheless, I recognized that what I objectively recorded belied my ultimate impression. something important was missing. Indeed, the student reaction to his teaching was clearly understandable. This teacher made further attempts to rectify the problem, utilizing many suggestions of his experienced colleagues. unfortunately, his student evaluations did not improve and so he left teaching.

    My second story involves a beginning teacher who asked me to mentor her and help guide her through the tenure process. our time together focused on both scholarship and teaching. Her early student-teaching evaluations were lukewarm, but were improving each semester. In approximately her fourth year of teaching she asked me to help locate an excellent acting teacher that might reshape her into the image she had of an effective teacher. That image was formed by her past experience as a student, as well as by a speaker she had recently heard. This speaker's command of language, her manner of speaking, and her persona were something she wanted to emulate. I asked to visit her class, which I had done each previous year, before she commenced any makeover of her classroom appearance. I then visited an entire week of classes in her course on civil procedure. I immediately liked what I saw. Her classes were not tightly organized nor was her discussion of cases regimented, but she was in control. she moved among the students with questions almost effortlessly. The class was attentive and fully engaged. she displayed both pleasure and displeasure with student responses. For example, when one student stumbled with an easy question she replied: "John, how could you do that to me after all of the time we spent going over and over that principle?" This was said with a warm smile and without any semblance of a chilling effect on John or any others within the classroom. It was evident that she commanded both trust and effort, and I was impressed. somehow, I knew that I was observing a very good teacher in the making. As a result, I urged her to remain true to herself and stay the course.

    Afterwards I thought a lot about these two teachers. My orchestral notes on the first suggested excellent teaching. If I had done the same for the second, I might have concluded that she had to make major changes to improve. Yet I would have been wrong in both instances. The second teacher had something that the first did not. simply stated, she had the ability to connect with her students. There was positive chemistry throughout her classroom. It was something intangible, something not easily described or replicated. But she clearly had it and he did not. This kind of chemistry exists for nearly all effective teachers. often it reflects the presence of a likeable teacher, but sometimes it does not. surely each of us has known extremely effective teachers who were not especially likable yet were able to challenge their students in ways that forced them to learn and think--indeed, teachers who may not have been fully appreciated until years later. conversely, many of us have known likable teachers who were unable to inspire and educate. Nevertheless, teachers who succeed have a positive chemistry with their students. (3)

    One should never underestimate the importance of this chemistry because eventually it colors a teacher's reputation in ways that are difficult to overcome. Those who have it begin each class with positive expectations among their students, and those who do not must overcome negative impressions derived from the past. Absent dramatic problems in a particular course, those who have this chemistry achieve consistently good student evaluations, even though their actual performance may not always be consistent. But those who do not have this chemistry often find it difficult to reach their students successfully, despite repeated attempts to increase effort and alter technique. In short, chemistry--positive or negative--can make or break a teacher's reputation and ultimately even their career.

    Given the importance of this chemistry, what can be done objectively to affirm or disaffirm its presence? What are its components? More important, what can be done by way of instilling this chemistry in a teacher without it? Perhaps the answer to the last question is "nothing," because it reflects human qualities with which people are born. surely this response is disconcerting for teachers who must instruct other teachers. Presumably, a successful teacher should be able to teach most anything, especially when the students consist of very bright subjects already within the academy of teachers. one can begin to lay out all kinds of human characteristics and abilities that often accompany this chemistry; for example, the ability to communicate clearly, and the ability to challenge students' intellect and even to inspire them. But how does one accomplish the task of teaching this to others? Many of the important components of positive chemistry may ultimately be impossible to teach because they are too closely connected to personality. This essay, however, makes the assumption that there are some things that can be taught, at least those components that exist around the periphery of successful chemistry. The purpose of this essay is to identify and discuss some of the factors that might lead to more effective teaching, and it is cast in the form of my...

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