Those first days of teaching were disastrous, but I didn’t know it.
I started out teaching at a community college right after finishing my master’s degree in journalism. Entrusted with the campus’s only two sections of the introductory Mass Communication class and given little guidance about how or what to teach, I was thrilled to find ready-made PowerPoint slides from the publisher included with the textbook.
I rocked those first few classes, talking through the slides and flipping quickly from point to point. I thought I had it made. I was on pace to cover the whole book, too!
Once the adrenaline wore off after about four class sessions, I realized that those sighs coming from the students weren’t due to the enlightenment they felt upon entering into my instructional presence. They were groans of pain as they massaged their hands after trying to take notes on my speed-lecturing. There may have also been groans of boredom.
I still cringe thinking of it now. But after a frank discussion with those classes about what was going wrong and how I could improve, I made huge changes to my approach. Into the trash went the pre-made PowerPoints. I built in more discussion opportunities. I slowed it all down. I taught less content, but tried to teach it better.
This was the beginning of a trend that would change my teaching, though it’s taken this long – about six years – for me to really realize it was happening. It’s not an original concept, I realize, but finally observing and labeling it has helped me continue to improve my teaching. What I’ve noticed is that the more I let go of control of the class – without losing control completely – the better I teach, and the more students learn.
It seems contradictory. After all, shouldn’t a masterful instructor plan every moment of a class session and anticipate all the students’ needs? That’s what I thought at first. As a beginning instructor, I wanted to manage every moment of class. I tried to anticipate students’ responses to pre-planned discussion questions so I could craft perfect segues from topic to topic, slide to slide. I wanted it all to be orchestrated to the finest points of detail. I thought this would make the teaching better, complete, perfected.
In the last couple of years, though, I’ve finally learned to let go – and let them. Let the students take more of a lead in determining how our classes go.
I now let them talk more. A lot more. I leave lots of time for discussion. If a topic takes off, great; and on the days it doesn’t? Well, I do still lecture some, and can provide some useful information when discussion is flat. But if I never leave the floor wide open for the students to take things where they want them to go, they won’t get what they want and need out of the class. I don’t always know what they need, no matter how much I think I can anticipate it.
I now let them have time to think individually and with each other about our class topics. In my large 120-student class, I now allot 10 minutes of each 75-minute session to a small group discussion warm-up activity on the assigned reading. I then collect and talk about students’ questions at the start of class and see what they’ve learned or missed from the reading right away. I think the activity is also helping to build a sense of community in that large, diverse general education class.
None of these ideas is novel, I know. I learned most of them from other instructors. But as a beginner, I would have been terrified of these approaches. Answering completely unplanned student questions around any possible aspect of the reading? Giving up class time for unstructured discussion in groups, in which they might wander off-topic? The horror!
I think I needed time to mature as an instructor to get to this point – and I certainly don’t have everything figured out and perfected even now. I learn something new with every class session. I also needed time to gain confidence in my subject matter so that I feel confident dealing with a variety of questions.
I had to learn how to keep a class on topic and hard at work, without micromanaging every second. Not micromanaging runs counter to my Type A personality as well, making this approach even more challenging. However, for a personality like mine, failure is a powerful teacher. Reflecting on my early teaching failures makes me more determined to improve.
I also needed to see, semester after semester, that loosening, without losing, my control over the classroom was possible and beneficial. And a whole lot more fun.
Fresno, California in the USA.
Susan Currie Sivek is an assistant professor and the graduate coordinator in the Mass Communication and Journalism Department at California State University, Fresno, where she teaches courses in media studies, writing and qualitative research methods. She blogs at sivekmedia.com  and is a knitter, triathlete and hiker when she can get away from the computer.