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UIC TA Handbook - Reflections on Teaching: Students as Teachers

By Derek S. Reveron

Former Teaching Assistant, Political Science

PhD  Political Science, UIC, July 2001
MA Political Science, UIC
BA Political Science and Russian, UIC
UIC Graduate College and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


What office is there which involves more responsibility, which requires more qualifications, and which ought, therefore, to be more honorable, than that of teaching?
                                                                                                                                                                         Harriet Martineau

Teaching is the greatest challenge and the most rewarding aspect of academia. As a teacher, you are responsible for facilitating the intellectual development of students who willfully accept the obligations of learning. Our obligation as teachers goes beyond teaching. Teachers counsel, teachers intellectually engage students, and teachers inspire original thoughts.

Teaching is an art. It requires determination, flexibility, tenacity, and practice. Understanding the course material is only the first step to prepare for the classroom. We must be prepared to facilitate discussion, to encourage participation, to guide each student to reaching an understanding of the material and to listen to our students.

Our responsibility as teachers does not end after a lecture is given. Our responsibility in the classroom begins when we listen. We must listen carefully to ensure that we create an atmosphere in which dialogue can occur. We must take a thoughtful approach to teaching. A teaching philosophy ensures that I remain true to the obligations of teaching.

A "teaching philosophy" is a set of general principles used to guide practice. My philosophy has developed from the good teachers that I have encountered during my education, and the classes that I encountered which I think could have been improved. Fortunate or not, we teach as we have been taught. We must be aware of how we teach, and how our students learn.

When I'm a student in a classroom, I make a conscious effort to observe the style of my teacher. I consider how the material is presented to me, and how my classmates perceive the presentation. Would I do anything differently? Is there anything that I should attempt to model and adapt for my own use? Likewise, when I lead a discussion or make an assignment, I consider how would I perceive the material or how I would approach the assignment.

It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.

Albert Einstein

As a teacher, my teaching philosophy developed, and continues to evolve through the demanding and critical students that I teach. The principles of teaching that I embrace today have been shaped by years of being in the classroom as a student, and as a teacher. As teachers, we must invigorate and stimulate the curiosity of our students. It is our pleasure to awaken creative expression and incite our students to think critically. To effectively learn, students must confront the material and examine the internal logic of the argument, consider its relevance and applicability to their own lives.

Because we are still in graduate school, let's rejoice in the opportunity to be in the classroom as a student. Consider how we approach assignments in our own courses. Learning, like rock climbing, is a process that requires determination, flexibility, and stamina to overcome the vertical challenges. It is our task to help students find the holds and the footings on the seemingly sheer rock face. The presentation of concepts must create footholds for students so they can truly grasp the material. When a student is lost or unsure of how to climb higher, we must be available sometimes to simply encourage them to go up, while other times we should lower our hand to assist them to climb higher.

Remember the disappointment of failure, the embarrassment of being corrected, and the pleasure of a good performance. We know that learning takes place in stages. Sometimes, all our efforts to understand lead nowhere, until a single moment when complete comprehension occurs. Being a student helps me understand the difficulties my students face in the classroom and yet gives me the distance I need to push them through their failures demand their best to reach the pinnacle of their learning ability.

Teaching is not a static routine of conduct for the classroom. There is no one way to teach, although some ways of teaching can be more effective than others. As new teachers, we are free to explore various methods of teaching to determine not only what works for us, but more importantly, what works for our students. We must never fear trying new types of assignments, modifying exam formats, or experimenting with new techniques for the classroom. A teaching style constantly adapts to its environment. The way we teach is driven by the dynamic interaction between teacher, material, and students. Teacher-inspired learning, therefore, becomes a fusion of the interaction.

In that same sense, then, teaching is not a simple trans­ mission of information, culture, values, or skills. Teaching is a process which facilitates learning. It is the arrangement of conditions, it is a dialogue, a text, or a test that is designed for learning. Like gardening, teaching is an activity that organizes natural processes to produce reliable results through a lot of effort. It can be done with enthusiasm by interjecting humor into the material, or it can be done subtly with insight and silence. If a student is the soil, and knowledge is the seed, the fruits of teaching are the way our students' minds grow. My duty as teacher is to create a warm, fertile environment that is ripe for learning.

The true teacher defends his pupils against his or her own personal influence. He inspires self-distrust. He guides their eyes from himself or herself to the spirit that quickens him or her. He will have no disciple.

A. Bronson Alcott

Neutrality is one of the base lies of teaching. As a scholar and a thinker, I make my own best judgments about how to present concepts and theories. To pretend that I can present different views objectively is nonsense. We must acknowledge that despite our intention to treat material objectively, we bring our own notions and assumptions into the classroom. We know our own personal interest in the subject is exhibited by the classes we teach, the readings we assign, and the research we conduct. As our students begin to delve into the subject matter, their own experiences and backgrounds will influence the way they perceive and synthesize the material. We must be aware of our own biases and viewpoints, and make every attempt to acknowledge them to our students, so that they may develop into independent thinkers.

The job of the teacher is not to re-create the students in the teacher's self-image. Instead it is to inspire critical thinking and create a fertile environment for originality. We are stifling the diversity and creativity each individual brings into the classroom if our goal is to shape young minds to imitate our own patterns of perception. It is our task as teachers to assist students in achieving what they see themselves to be. If we make the mistake in recreating our students in our "superior image," they are no longer themselves.

A teacher affects eternity; one can never tell where one's influence stops.

Henry A. Adams

What we do as teachers affects students long after lectures are over and classroom discussions cease. Students look to teachers as guides on their unending intellectual journeys. Each day of teaching brings failures, successes, crises, and delightful surprises. We must be prepared to accept equally these challenges and pleasures of teaching.

Think back to one of your favorite teachers. Most likely that teacher made you feel comfortable in the classroom. That teacher made you feel special and listened to your ideas. That teacher recognized the value of your unique contributions to the classroom. Let that teacher continue to guide you. Let that teacher's example continue to teach.

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