Musing on my Teaching Self

When contemplating this week’s blog post I was suddenly reminded of a True Colors Personality Test that I took as part of my time as a resident assistant during my undergrad. I tied for both green and blue. (If you haven’t taken a True Colors year check out this quick one here: As a … Continue reading Musing on my Teaching Self

Teaching as controlled improvisation

Of the readings for this week, I connected most with Shelli Fowler’s “The Authentic Teaching Self and Communication Skills.” As I think about her handout I really appreciated her statement that “Teaching is not all about the teacher.” I’ve said it so many times, but academics tend to have serious egos. It just seems to attract that type. I don’t mean that all academics have egos, just that it seems to be an environment that breeds that mentality. When you’re constantly pitted against each other to prove the value of your research, it’s not really surprising. For that reason, I think academics find it challenging to connect with students and meet them at their level. The first thing I do while teaching is tell the students about myself and my journey to get to that classroom and my PhD program. I explain to them that I struggled through undergrad. I did my best to stay focused and connected, but I knew that in a class of 200+ I could skip class because no one was paying attention. Today, I make it my mission to make no student feel anonymous because I know that is the first way to lose the connection. I always start the semester by explaining to them all that I don’t have all of the answers, but I will work with them to help them find the answers to their questions.

In that regard I will often call on the class to help teach one other. What makes sense to me and the way I explain something will work for me, but not necessarily to every one of my students. When I teach I aim to learn from my students how to teach. I don’t expect to walk into my classroom and have everything I say stick the first time. I really appreciated the line that you need to “be flexible and adapt your plan as you “read” the dynamic.” Not every exercise I have tried has been successful. This is where improvisation is key. Do. Not. Panic. Just go with it. Have a discussion with the students. Ask them what worked and what they are struggling with. I really believe that maintaining honest and open conversation throughout my teaching has allowed for reflection and evolution of my teaching style. I’m certain I will (and have) fail at teaching one thing or another in the future, but I look forward to the failure, because that just means there is still so much room to grow.

Can I REALLY Be My Authentic Self While Teaching in the Classroom?

This week’s subject talks about being our authentic selves while teaching in the classroom. I spent lots of time reading and re-reading Professor Fowler’s The Authentic Teaching Self & Communication Skills and several of the points that they mention in the article. Within the outline, I looked deeper into section one, the authentic teaching self. This section posed some tips and questions about what does it mean to be authentic in the classroom. All of the suggestions do make sense to me. However, I’m curious through what lens and worldview this article was written. Does the author take into account the positionality and world view of the different types of teachers? Does the author take into account the campus climate and campus politics? I’m not implying that the author doesn’t, however I do wonder.

Growing up, I knew my skin color was different fro my peers but it wasn’t until I began college that I was a woman and it certainly wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that I’m a BLACK woman. How I show up to spaces and how I convey my message to my students, while I may mean well, it could be taken in differently if I sound passionate about a topic. There was an incident last semester in which tone of voice and passion in the classroom (& really in general) came into question. some students responded saying that they don’t respond well to that type of interaction. When a topic means something to me or causes one or more of my identities to come into question, I become passionate (read: raise voice) when I speak on the topic. I’m not going to apologize for that. This conversation did make me question though, is there a way for my to still convey my disdain/dislike about a subject matter in the classroom while making sure that those around me understand that this not a personal attack against them? This same question makes me think, can I truly be my authentic self in the classroom, if part of my authentic self is sometimes being passionate about which I speak?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to be belligerent and in-your-face with my comments. Just because something makes me upset doesn’t mean that I’m always going to get passionate or bent-out-of-shape about certain topics. BUT I also want my peers/colleagues, students and professors to know and understand what means the a lot to me. What makes me uncomfortable, what makes me think twice and unnerves me a bit.

I say all that I said above to ask the question, can I REALLY TRULY be my authentic self in the classroom? At this exact point and time, no I don’t necessarily feel like I can be consistently. And the moments in which I am myself, I feel like I’m being judged. But maybe that’s me being too critical on myself. Maybe I’m too concerned about someone else’s view of me, something that I have no business worrying about.

Okay. I feel like I’m rambling and rant so forgive me. If you made it this far with me, I appreciate you sticking it out and I look forward to reading your thoughts and answer to my main question (read: 3rd paragraph, first sentence).

Finding your voice in teaching: Discovering your vocabulary

This week’s reading dealt with finding one’s teaching voice, and the story Sarah Deel gave resonates with me and my teaching. I too am shy and generally nervous about my teaching quality. I wonder if I am getting through, and if not I must be failing them. I also modeled myself after my favorite professors, largely teaching from a power point and asking the class if they understood, and encouraging all questions. I have fun with this, but then the dreaded question of death comes out of left field, and it genuinely shocks you. A loss of words, a loss of respect? This was and still is my fear teaching. Am I qualified to be their teacher, sure I have read the material I know it. Hell I have written a paper or too on it. But the little things trip me up, the details how we got there is hard for me to explain. I know this, so I research the things I am not comfortable with and at times I struggle with the material although it usually comes to me on the second reading of a term. I struggle with  imposter syndrome. I believe  teaching is a big hindrance to me because of the type of person I am. I worry a lot!

I teach them what I know I correct myself when I make mistakes, and I always try to come prepared to my class, yet I always do feel behind. I believe I am a good teacher, but I also believe I get in my own way. I give them a lot of information every class, I teach until I can barely speak, I incorporate videos, I explain the terms the best I can. I am no expert, but I think I am finding my voice in the class. I know the students respect me, (I think)I joke with them but I also have a professional relationship with my students. It is hard to explain that despite all my perceived struggles in teaching, previous students told me they learned so much from my class. They have never thought about the impact of political economy, or why it matters and what it means. I think I have found my voice I just need to convince myself of that.

“Authentic” Teaching Voice

Many in academia speak of an “authentic” teaching voice. I put authentic in quotes because a little Michel Foucault is sitting on my shoulder telling me to critique all word choices ever.

I would not choose the term because authenticity means that there is some essential truth about oneself that has yet to be revealed, when really we are always growing and changing. Instead, I prefer the phrase “relateable” teaching voice.

Relateable might not be exactly what those mean when they say authentic, but this is something I value in my teaching voice. Channeling bell hooks, I find my voice in my attempts to engage in conversation with students rather than by lecturing to them.

I don’t always succeed in teaching this way because I feel that strict lecturing is an easy fallback—you can plan ahead and you know exactly what to expect. However, so far, I have found that engaging in conversation with students as a form of class discussion keeps the classroom energetic.

BEEEE Yourself

Robin Williams’ voice as the Genie as he tells Aladdin to bee himself echoes in my mind as I think about teaching styles.

Image result for bee yourself

Or, if you prefer, you can engage William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Act – I, Scene – III is when Polonius gives advice to his son Laertes. “Neither a borrower or a lender be.” Yes, I looked this up on a learning machine, or computer if you prefer. (And you can watch the cast of Gilligan’s Island sing the phrase below.) What the heck am I talking about with these opening references? Teaching is not a monochromatic exercise. It is not devoid of a full range of colors, tones, and movements. To sit in a desk and stare at a cut out of a person while hearing a monotone humming is a great way to induce sleep or meditation but not teaching and learning. Sarah Deel discussed how she searched for a style and read to learn new teaching techniques but realized it was her style that needed projection. Her systems and manners allowed students to relate and become interested in the class. Dr. Fowler does not tell us how to teach but offers guidelines that allow each of us to find OUR way of presenting material. She does not suggest clown suites, but that could be fun, nor does she say be too relaxed. She offers a balance to maintain the teaching position and allow for personality to become exhibited. This is how to keep a class engaged in the material without losing yourself.

Seymour Papert gives a parable of time traveling doctors and teachers and how they would perceive the world today. This story is meant to illuminate the lack of progress in education. Why hasn’t pedagogical practices advanced in the last 100 years? It is not fault of that progressive thinker John Dewey. If new techniques and materials are appearing, why don’t educators use them? That is what we must constantly ask ourselves, as well as how giraffes sleep.

Communicating teaching pedagogy with students

After reading Sarah E. Deel’s article “Finding my teaching voice”, I keep imaging what kind of teacher I will be, and what style my classroom may be like. I am also wondering if I will be a popular professor among students … I realize that there are still a lot of practices needed before I find my own teaching style. For now, I have many expectations for my future lectures. I hope that my class is well-prepared, well-structure, active and interactive, knowledgeable, effective, and full of fun. I know that I can probably be disappointed by my high expectations at the beginning of my teaching like Sarah felt. But one principle I want to stick to is to become an approachable professor to my students and always explain my teaching pedagogy at the start of a course.

Explaining the teaching strategies and purposes to students is very necessary in terms of helping them make corresponding study plans and manage their time effectively. Students will understand why they have to complete certain types of assignments and why some classes are arranged in certain ways. For the courses I did not learn well or spent too much time reluctantly, I normally did not understand why the lecturers designed certain types of assignment/project or why the lectures was designed in certain context. I was also not given opportunities to reflect my concerns and doubts until the end of the semester. I would learn more effectively and actively if I were told the purposes of teaching pedagogy.

[1] Figure from


Sarah Deel gets me, she really gets me.

I’ve been asked what I teach, how I teach it, what my teaching philosophy is, but I’ve never been asked, “What kind of teacher are you?”

I’m “self-reflective,” “passionate,” “dedicated” and “nerd-funny.”

I can’t express the number of ways Sarah Deel’s “Finding My Teaching Voice” resonated with me (Seriously, we’d have so much to talk about). I, too, am from a small liberal arts college. The largest classrooms I’ve ever been in (either as a teacher or a student) was this past fall as a GTA for RLCL Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There were 70 students. This semester, at 40, I am teacher of record for the second largest lass I’ve ever experienced.

When I first started teaching in 2008, like Deel, I looked to the professors that I loved most, but many of those professors were sages on the stage. Their lectures were powerful, interesting and insightful, but I knew that I am atypical in that I learn well listening to a lecturer. I’m happy to curl up and read for hours or listen to a long podcast. Most people don’t learn like that anymore. Fortunately, I started out teaching Freshman Composition, which lends itself to group projects, collaborative writing and discussions. I was cast out to sea and left to figure out what swimming strokes worked before for me.

The challenge I face this semester in HUM 1324 is finding a way to navigate the space. It is a small classroom in McBryde with 40 students crammed into rows with aisles so narrow they have to navigate them sideways. There is no room to circle into groups, no room to make a large circle that I can join in for discussions, and the impact is apparent. This has been one of the hardest classes I’ve had to facilitate discussions. And, honestly, facilitating discussions is my strongest suite as a teacher — asking the right questions, waiting patiently for responses, teasing out a student’s point when they’ve rambled, noticing when a student wants to say something and needs the encouragement of being called on.

The space is also challenging for me when I lecture. There is a giant lectern beside a table where computers are connected to the projects beside a shorter full-sided desk.  When the projector is on, I have a path behind the lectern that is about three feet wide to move in or else I’m blocking the power point. And there is no room for a path between all the furniture and the desks for me to come out and walk in front. It is challenging. Generally, moving around helps me feel stronger and more in control, and it keep my voice upbeat and strong. (*I have a tendency to have a weak voice, more about that later.)

So, most classes I have a short lecture, we might listen to a podcast or watch a short video, maybe there will be a short group assignment (with them working only with those they sit beside, and then some discussion). It is working, but it isn’t working really, really, well. I’ve been considering places I can take my class outside on beautiful days, which I hope will help better facilitate the discussion portion of the class.

*I want to mention vocal health because it is something I find really helpful. I’ve always felt like my voice was really weak, maybe too high to be taken seriously. So, I often speak in a lower-than-natural register when I’m teaching or public speaking. In the past when I was teaching three courses, working a job where I was talking to (interviewing) people, I found that just an additional long phone conversation could make me completely lose my voice. Last summer I talked to my brother about his. He’s the Director of Choral Studies at University of Louisiana and is the vocal health guru. He pointed out that when I drop to a lower register, my sentences often trailed off into vocal fry, which is very stressful and bad for your vocal chords. It was that strain that made me lose my voice so often. (There’s a lot of say about vocal fry and gender i.e. why so many women have it and are hated for it, but that’s an entirely different can of worms.) So, I’d inadvertently trained myself to speak in a way that was harmful to my vocal health. It has become so ingrained that I have to consciously speak in my normal register…and it’s been a journey of accepting my natural voice and asserting authority and confidence in my natural higher, more feminine register. #NoMoreVocalFry #AuthenticVoice

Lets Get Real

I thought the readings this week were great.  This was really the kind of things I was hoping to read and discuss as part of Contemporary Pedagogy: the nuts and bolts and ways we can improve our teaching.  I think most of us have our idea of what a “good” teacher is from our experience as an undergrad and grad student.  I think there are great things we can learn from the teachers we’ve had, but the danger is that we end up thinking those techniques define what makes a good teacher instead of a symptom of being a good teacher.

I like the idea of being our authentic self when teaching.  A couple semesters ago i had a teacher who was filling in for the semester for the regular professor.  He was very knowledgeable on the subject, but he chose to use the exact class notes the normal professor had used for years.  It was quite evident that the class notes did not match up with how he would have taught the class.  You could see him fighting with himself at times and also getting lost.  I remember one day, though, where he kind of stopped and decided “I’m going to teach this the way I would like to teach it” and the difference was palpable.  He clearly was more enthusiastic about what he was saying and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us and was motivation to pay more attention.  I think it’s important to remember that there are lots of ways to be an effective teacher, but they will only be effective if they suit us as teachers.

I was going to end there, but I was thinking of things that were a little out there but helped me be more engaged in class. One I thought of was a professor who had “80s movie trivia” every Friday or so.  It was awesome, even though I knew almost none of them 🙂  Just a small, 1 minute-long something to break up an hour-long class session and get people re-engaged.  I might have to switch to “2010s movie trivia” for my students, but maybe it’s worth a try.

Difficult Conversations: Report from CHEP

Members of the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence partnered with the Academy of Teaching Excellence to host a packed session on facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom at last week’s Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. The write-up is below: Standing room only for the @VT_GrATE panel discussion on having difficult conversations in the classroom! @VTCIDER …
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