Teaching the Teachers

By Beckerman, Nancy L. | Academe, July/August 2010 | Go to article overview

Teaching the Teachers


Beckerman, Nancy L., Academe


Teaching the skills of teaching has taken a back burner to publication and grant writing-to the detriment of both faculty members and students.

New tenure-track faculty members come into academia expecting to be able to devote substantial energy and expertise to teaching. They often find, however, that they must learn to navigate a multitude of other, competing demands. The quality of classroom teaching has been increasingly marginalized.

Numerous interdisciplinary studies published in the last decade have demonstrated that the normative expectations of incoming faculty members have emphasized publication without placing equal emphasis on teaching. In many disciplines, a record of scholarly publication has become more critical for tenure and promotion across all three tenure-track professorial ranks, and deans have identified publication as the most important consideration for tenure and promotion.

The current recession has resulted in another labor- and time-intensive demand that can divert a faculty member from classroom teaching: the need to obtain external funding. With higher education institutions experiencing diminished internal and external financial support for research, many new faculty members have already felt the pressure to succeed at grant writing.

Classroom teaching, meanwhile, is surprisingly the least visible of the educator's responsibilities. It is an endeavor that remains private, with student evaluations and collegial classroom observations the chief means by which it is evaluated for tenure and promotion.

Teacher Preparation

Teaching in higher education requires a complex and multidimensional knowledge of the content of a given course as well as the knowledge of how to teach it. Fay Rouseff-Baker, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Parkland College in Illinois, has studied how best to prepare college teachers for teaching. She has demonstrated that what was true a decade ago is even more evident today: while most incoming faculty members have proven expertise in their respective research areas, they are often poorly prepared as teachers.

Mid-career and senior faculty members, as well as administrators, need to support and mentor their junior colleagues better and emphasize excellence in classroom teaching. Teaching is a complex endeavor in which the teacher has to create a learning atmosphere that is simultaneously safe and challenging, fosters intellectual exchange and curiosity, and promotes skill development. But studies show that new faculty members typically experience chronic doubts and insecurity about their ability to master and articulate the content and control classroom dynamics.

We need to listen to our new colleagues to hear whether they are confident about the effectiveness of their teaching. Numerous researchers have confirmed the correlation between a positive sense of teaching efficacy and effective teaching practices as well as the correlation between strong teacher self-efficacy-defined as the extent to which teachers believe they can affect student learning-and student achievement.

Faculty development and mentoring activities, however, rarely address basic pedagogical principles. As the medical education expert Linda Pololi has pointed out, many faculty members believe that good teaching comes "naturally." Some teachers do have an intuitive knowledge of pedagogical principles, but formal knowledge of educational principles is rare. It is critical, just as it is with students, for experienced faculty members to provide mentoring and meaningful feedback that will foster the growth of their junior colleagues as teachers.

Curriculum for Mentoring

Mentoring in higher education has historically focused on academic career development, which has included several domains but has not necessarily addressed teaching. …

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