October 14, 2015

Finding My Niche

It is Wednesday, and I am sitting in my usual spot -- at the computers on the 3rd floor of the library at Grand Canyon University. It is 9:53, and I am thinking about my day, what I have coming up, and where I need to be by the day's end. Yes, I have a lot of my plate. I have two books to read: Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling," and Craddocks "Overhearing the Gospel." I have previewed Craddock (the other night), but I haven't read either. I have to write a comparison and contrast of the two books for my weekly critical review, and frankly, I am a bit overwhelmed at that task. I know I will do fine, but there is a part of me that is getting tired of writing these reviews. Yet, I know that at this point in the semester, I am in good shape, overall. I need to stay focused, stay strong, and keep my head in the game. I cannot lose sight of my goal, not now, not when I am so close to finishing this long road toward a PhD. I can do this, I can do this!

Still Finding My Way

As I sit here today, I cannot help but think on how far I have come as a teacher. I spent my morning, after my 7:00 class, working on my PPT for my Composition I class, and frankly, I am impressed with my speed. I reviewed my content from last year, and realized that I needed to update it for effectiveness. I think the fact that I am now in my 3rd year of teaching has helped, I mean, I have taught this class twice, and as I go through it again, I see more and more things that need to be clarified, examined more closely, and generally presented differently. As I refine, I am able to see more clearly what my students need to know, and what my role is in the classroom.

I was thinking about it was I went to the restroom (I know, gross!) I just mean, I took a break from working on the computer to walk to the restrooms, and this thought was on my mind. Some faculty have their students write in class. They use the class periods as writing workshops, and while that is a good thing, I have found that I struggle to do that well. I incorporate some writing into my classes, but generally I prefer to teach my students what they need to know, and then let them practice in class with examples. I send them home to write their papers, and have them return to class with drafts for review. This works better, and I think class time is more interesting. Besides, I enjoy teaching this way. I guess I am not a facilitator nor am I a lab tech, which is something more and more colleges are moving toward. My college has a writing lounge where students can go for help, but I feel that I can either help them in class or off-load them to instructional assistants who may or may not teach them correctly. I would rather teach them and test for their learning than trust that to someone else.

So as I walked to the restroom, this is the thought that I pondered. I thought that it is a good thing that I am able to teach my students by example. I use a biblical model for teaching, and while I have tried to change my approach, it simply doesn't work for me.

Titus 2:7 says, "And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching." This is the model we are called by Paul to use in our teaching. I believe that regardless of the content -- bible, scripture, life, or English -- teaching by example is a valid model for education. It seems like most of the teaching pedagogy today is student-centered, where the student is encouraged to learn on their own. I understand this approach, but I feel that it invalidates one of the best methods used for centuries to teach students. Student-centered is a government approach, whereby the teacher is reduced to facilitator, and the student is given all the tools and told to "figure it out." Some students are adaptable and are good at learning this way. I believe that Jesus' model, the model Paul followed in his epistles, works in the majority of cases. Let me explain...

Over the past dozen or so years, the shift from teacher-centered instruction to student-centered instruction has caused a division among educators. There are many pros and cons for each approach, and generally, it has been studied and shown that a combination of the two methods works best. In both methods, some students will miss important information, some students will "check out" and some students will not be engaged in the learning process. However, while studies show that both methods teach and instill skill in students, the types of learning are not the same. Therefore, it comes down to the product and outcome of the learning experience. For example, in teacher-centered learning the teacher controls the content and delivers the content to inform, educate and persuade the student to learn. The information is disseminated and the student is responsible to processing the information for learning, application, and response. 

Conversely, in student-centered learning, the emphasis is on communication and collaboration, and less on information or processing of information. The goal is to learn how to work in teams or groups, and to problem solve. This is a good thing because in business and real-world we must learn how to get along in groups and work together to solve problems. But without instruction, students will simply talk, but not learn anything of value. They learn communication skill, and that is a good thing. But will they learn important details, facts or necessary information that could shape their worldview, change their attitude or cause them to think critically? In my view, student-centered instruction is a good thing to develop group problem-solving ability, but it cannot replace teacher-centered instruction where the teacher is the expert. After all, how many students go to college to learn how to work in groups or communicate in groups? Not many. Most are going to learn a trade or profession, therefore, they are in school to gain knowledge about a subject area. If this is still the goal of higher education, than we must continue to teach content and not focus solely on student learning in collaboration and groups. Just my opinion...

So as I sit here today, I came to the conclusion that while I am still finding my way as a teacher, I am getting better at lesson planning and my teaching method. I realized that I am a teacher, not a facilitator. I don't like lecturing, so I need to work on incorporating more student activities into the class, but generally, I think my style is good, and it works well for me and my students. I know that over the next dozen years (Lord willing), my style will become more fixed, and I will become a true subject-matter expert in my field. In fact, I have considered it this way. Teaching someone how to write requires a great deal of skill. I am a good writer, but I have to disconnect myself from writing in order to teach the skill. I have to figure out what must be taught, and then decide how to teach it. I cannot just show by example, which is what some teachers do. Not all students learn this way, but they need a combination approach -- some instruction, some guidance, some example, and some practice. I try to do a little bit of everything and so far I think it works. In time, I may end up doing things differently, but until I get to that point, I will continue to refine, revise, and reevaluate my efforts each semester until I feel confident that my process and my method produce good results for my students. My learning outcomes are fixed -- my students need to learn how to write good academic essays. My teaching outcomes are also fixed -- my students need to give me good feedback through evaluations and assessments on their competence. This combination will help me to know that I am on the right track. 

I really am coming to enjoy what I am teaching, but only after much soul searching and angst. In fact, today as I walked from my Communications class, I said to the Lord, "Lord, I so enjoy teaching English 106 (Introduction to Argumentation)." I really do enjoy it more than other classes. I love the essay we write, and I love the kind of argumentation we engage in. I thought as I walked to the student union that I even liked Composition I. I mean, I don't mind these essays either, and now that I have reworked them, I feel that I have a much better handle on the course as a whole. I made some changes today that will help me going forward, and I think I am on a really good track to improve now. It is semester by semester as I move forward. The Lord knows the plans He has for me, and He knows where He intends me to teach. I am thankful for GCU. I mean, GCU has given me this opportunity to teach, and for that, I am so thankful. I am becoming a better teacher here, and while I would like full-time work, salary and benefits, I am settled that for now, this is good. 

I was disappointed originally because it seemed like it was taking too long for me figure this out. I have let go of that impatience because I see now, I mean, I really see now, that teaching is not a quick endeavor. It is a skill-based discipline, like music or art, and friends, skill development takes a lot of time. In fact, when I was learning how to play the cello, my teacher told me that to be proficient, one has to play for 25-30 years (every day!) Otherwise, you can be good, but not proficient or really good. So for me, I am just starting at teaching, and just like with cello, I didn't hit my stride until my 3rd year of study. It took 3 years of daily practice for me to learn how to play moderately well (not perfect, but in a group, and to keep time, and play well). I have taught 3 years now, and it is the same way. I am getting there. I am getting the hang of it. I am doing better, but it is a daily application, a daily process of learning. I am blessed to have this time, to do this work while I am completing my PhD. I hope that when I finish my degree in 2016, I will be hired by a school as full-time faculty. I know this is in the Lord's hands, so for now, I remain focused on finished my PhD. The Lord has me well-covered, and I am thankful to Him for this time to learn how to be a teacher.

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