Our Worst Teaching Moment

Siddhartha Bautama by Suta Sila Dham. Courtesy of Fotopedia.

Our last Teaching Circle meeting, I decided to try a more guided discussion, and asked guests to bring their worst teaching moment to share with the group. I have to admit, I think we probably had worse ones than the ones we actually shared, but that’s okay, because the point was two-fold:

  • Build community through stories;
  • Identify our weaknesses as teachers and how they’ve made (or can make us) better.

The reason for sharing our worst stories first is so we can – right out of the gate – admit that we are all human and that every educator has moments, or days, possibly a full week, when they don’t, exactly…shine.

Sharing our stories was cool, and I mean that in the sense of Chester Cheetos-like cool, because we laughed at ourselves without feeling our stories diminished us at all as educators. How we handle these moments became the take-away from this meeting, and how they can form, and inform, us as educators became teaching philosophy fodder. Because this is the point: none of us is perfect and it’s important for us, and our students, to know that. Don’t lose your cool! Students love it when they can bond with you over a little SNAFU in class, come to your assistance, or otherwise pull together as a group to solve a problem (I’m quite surprised technology implosions didn’t feature much more largely in our discussion – we did have one instructor discuss her experience with full system failure though). Though some students may view it as an opportunity to dismiss you as an authority with knowledge to share, most students will rally around you if you show a sense of humor and some humility about life’s little jokes.

Here is a brief rundown of the funny and humble stories featuring times we felt less than great about our teaching or inter-action with students, with each of us presenting different moments revealing our unique yet 0h-so-common teaching bonds. No matter how long you’ve been teaching, how well you know your topic, how utterly fabulous you are as an instructor, you will at some time have the teaching gods frown upon you. I began by owning up to a particular lesson in a high-school economics class, where my students ended up schooling me on a simple math equation. Don’t remember the context, the exact lesson, or the math I couldn’t do that day, but I distinctly remember the embarrassment. We then talked about how to handle these situations; I handled it badly by NOT addressing it with my students and pretending I wasn’t a complete math ignoramus, but it was okay, because eventually I could look back and recognize how I should have handled it, and how I would be better prepared for these moments in the future. Something to write about in my teaching statement, which I have done. Nothing says, “I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned from them” than an honest story that reveals what we don’t know about teaching and what we want to learn, yes?

Next came stories of language barriers – especially relevant for our international scholars and professors who struggle with accents and pronunciations in front of American students ( and for the record, I myself have practiced pronouncing many words that I don’t speak regularly but are difficult for any English speaker; for example, homogeneous is often mispronounced, still can’t confidently say the names of Tacitus or Aeschylus; just about any word with a lot of vowels…); “things students say in class” that catch us unawares -forcing some quick thinking and instant ability to react wisely! (“Oh, prof, I won’t be here for that class; I’m going to Coachella.”; “Oh, okay. <long pause> Have fun.” = awkward!); lapses in basic knowledge (see my math freeze above), inability to answer a student’s question coherently, razing by jerky students who know you are “fresh” – this WILL happen to you as a new or younger teacher. We heard a story about a mathematician of renown, possibly still teaching, but the story is of old, who simply shrugged off his calculation errors in front of students, and put the onus of knowledge on the students (that is, he let them figure out the problem; he already knew how to do it, why should he do it for the students?). Would that we all had that confidence and aloofness, yes? We discussed our frustration when students don’t “get it” and how we struggle to make meaning for them – is it us? them? How can we make it clearer? It seems so OBVIOUS!  We decided that we – yes, us teachers – are of the homo sapiens species after all, thus prone to error. We were able to turn these mini-crises into really pivotal and critical teaching and learning moments, ones that we ALL share as educators.

We also talked about the Flipped Classroom, Google+ versus Facebook, whether or not we should interact with students on social media sites (that was a resounding NO as I recall, but we did agree that setting up professional “teacher/colleague” profiles were a good idea when you did want to create a space online with your students). We ran out of time before we got to some writing exercises for tying all of this into our teaching philosophies, but I hope we can get to that next time.

For our next meeting, I plan to guide us to the flip side of the teaching coin-  our best teaching moment – that one (or more) class where everything just “clicked. I think we can all remember a day where the students talked, where our lesson was BOSS and our delivery was award-worthy, where students “got it” and time ran over but no one cared (or something along those lines), and we pictured Cate Blanchett playing us in the Oscar-winning movie of 2026 on inspiring teaching stories that bring a tear to the eye (dream sequence)…so, I thought, let’s end our semester with some positive stories and experiences, and what they can tell us about our teaching, about our students, and how these experiences (good and bad), are integral parts of being awesome educators.

We’d love to hear from you out there: what was your best or worst teaching moment? What did it teach you about yourself as an educator? Join us!

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