This afternoon I attended Maria Klawe’s keynote for the UoA’s Festival of Teaching 2011 (https://provost.sitecore.ualberta.ca/en/FestivalofTeaching2011.aspx), on “Teaching Trials and Triumphs”. How interesting an accident to have this inspiring female role model here on the eve of the International Women’s Day!
The message of her keynote was simple: there are four important ingredients in becoming a successful teacher:
- passion, and
To gain confidence, among other things, she advised us to ask for positive feedback from colleagues and coworkers (when deserved of course:-) and to actively pursue difficult challenges. Positive feedback energizes one to pursue more of the behaviors that led to the positive feedback in the first place; and accomplishing challenging goals inspires confidence to face professional challenges with more energy.
Students need feedback early and frequently on their performance and positive feedback is always better than negative feedback. On the flip side, teachers need student feedback. A great idea, which I will try to adopt in the future, is to distribute 3×5 cards at the end of each class asking students to respond to the question What I found most difficult today was … so that the next time the class meets the teacher can revisit the problem concepts and help the students catch up. And she also mentioned the story of a Mudd faculty who had the best day ever (as a teacher) when 100% of class “clicked” on the correct answer to a question she asked them! I can only imagine the excitement of having a whole class get it right together!
Then she related several stories of Mudd faculty demonstrating amazing passion for their job as teachers. I was terribly moved and inspired by the story of a young faculty member, with practically perfect teaching evaluations, who decided to spend his first sabbatical in a Los Angeles high school, whose students had consistently abysmal levels of math competency in standardized tests, teaching math! And this person, whose commitment I find terribly difficult to understand and impossible to espouse, spent the first six months failing (things were not working for him in the high school). But he did not give up and he stayed the course, to see things turn around in the seventh month after having gained the trust and respect of his students, through the recommendation of a trusted colleague and his own involvement with his students’ personal life.
But the most amazing story came towards the end when she talked about connection. She started with a story of a Mudd faculty who asks his linear algebra students to write an essay about what they learned in the course, relevant to their lives, because he believes that this is what our role as teachers is: to connect with our students’ lives. And he manages to inspire his students to think about how changes in perspective may lead to new ideas, just as changes in the chosen base of a space may lead to simplification of problems that seemed too big before. And then she talked about her personal involvement with a shy student who “was not happy” at Mudd, according to her parents. Apparently the parents came up to her, after she welcomed everyone to the family weekend, and told her that their daughter was not having a good experience at Mudd. And she met with this young girl and worked out a plan for how she could practice music and how she could work with another student (who was her mentor) and the girl’s life at Mudd turned around; and this girl, who started being terribly shy (too shy to practice saxophone because the music room was not 100% sound proof) brought to her a couple more students with problems (love-life problems among them, it turns out). And Klawe, the president, talked with them and advised them and connected with them, just as she had connected with the first shy girl, and just as the shy girl connected with her fellow students, and just as Klawe herself had connected with her PhD supervisor and learned form him how to be a researcher. And this last part made me see in my mind’s eye a long line of people – her supervisor, Klawe herself, the shy student, her fellow students – touching each other and having an impact on each other, changing each other’s lives in some significant manner.
And the fact that, Klawe, the Mudd president, can take the time and listen and think up solutions for the shyness and the love aches of these young students made me think that there is always time and always a place to connect with people. And in our privileged position of being teachers and being knowledgeable and having been there (where our students are) we have the opportunity and the duty to connect with them and with care and sensitivity and modesty try to add them to the chains of our lives.
Thank you Dr. Klawe!
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