At ASA I was asked to sit on a “what I wish I would’ve known” panel where new faculty gave advice to grad students on the market and new hires. First, let me say that it was a privilege to be asked to participate. But it left me with this question, “is being an experienced teacher the same thing as being a good teacher[1]”. I bring this question up not to take a shot at senior teachers[2], but to reflect back on my first few years as a professional teacher and invite you to rethink your goals for this fall.

As a (still) relatively new faculty, I have often been given the advice, “observe your senior faculty and pick up some tips and strategies for your class.” My department has senior faculty do classroom observations of all junior faculty. And while I’d never argue against the idea that wisdom comes from experience, I am still left wondering, can classroom experience serve as a proxy for pedagogical skill? If the answer is yes, then can we conclude that the “best” teachers would be some of the most experienced?

Part of the answer to the question of experience and ability lies in the research on skill acquisition and deliberate practice. Deliberate practice (as defined in the research by Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer 1993) focuses skill acquisition on just one particular component of a skill that is currently something the individual struggles with. Then through repeated practice and immediate feedback the individual gets better at it. Deliberate practice can help us understand why so many Karaoke singers who sing the same songs over and over almost never become world famous singers.

In the classroom it’s easy to go into autopilot and just do what’s always worked for you in the past. Last April I wrote about how reading How Learning Works woke me up to the fact that I wasn’t half the teacher I thought I was. Because I had some experience under my belt and thought so highly of my teaching I had slipped into autopilot. I was going through the motions; going through my routine, but I wasn’t really growing as a teacher. I was still using my skills, but I wasn’t developing them very much.

Today I feel that teaching experience is no guarantee of teaching skill. You may be a subject expert and you may have a great deal of wisdom from years of experience, but if you haven’t pushed yourself to grow as an educator, your teaching quality may not be much better than it was 10 years ago. Everyone has something to learn or some aspect of teaching to work on. You don’t have to be perfect. I needed to hear that last semester and I’m going to need to hear it again and again throughout my career. We all have something to work on. So as the term begins for so many of us, I invite you to think about what aspect of your teaching you might want to work on this fall.

  1. What makes a good teacher? Is a good teacher one that is well liked or well respected or a teacher who gets their students to learn a great deal? This is an excellent question, which I will punt on until another blog post 🙂  ↩

  2. In fact, I owe a great deal to my mentors. Any success I’ve experienced in the classroom is in large part due to what I learned from them.  ↩