Twenty-two years ago, I was offered a job as an assistant professor at a university in Michigan. The offer came late in the summer, so I had only a few weeks before I was to begin teaching. I was both excited and terrified -- excited, because I always wanted to teach and finally got my first teaching job; terrified, because I wasn't sure if I would be a good teacher. English was my third language, and I wasn't fluent in it. The more I thought about my teaching, the more my initial excitement dissolved into fear. As the beginning of the fall semester drew closer, I was in full-fledged panic mode and ready to quit teaching even before I started. I felt so desperate I was ready to pray, though I am not religious. I wished there were a magic answer to the question, "Mirror, mirror on the wall: How can I be a better teacher in the fall?"
Knowing there was no simple answer to this, I sought enlightenment in numerous books on teaching. I watched movies such as Stand and Deliver and Dead Poet's Society to find ways to become a better teacher. I admired teachers like Jaime Escalante and Samuel Pickering, who set such high standards I felt intimidated to follow their lead. However, I thought you had to be born with natural abilities to be a great teacher, and I didn't think I had those abilities. My friends tell me now that I have a natural talent for teaching, but they didn't see me when I started: awkward, anxious, in constant panic, nowhere close to the confident teacher I am today. My friends didn't see me struggle with my language skills, accent, handwriting or even content knowledge. A person with a good natural voice may never become a great singer; I might have had natural abilities, but those aren't really necessary to become a better teacher. I now know that anyone with genuine interest and commitment can become a better teacher.
Over the next few years I applied several teaching techniques in my classes. Having had no formal teacher training, I was not aware of an entire field called cognitive psychology, dedicated to the study of learning. Instead, I resorted to the time-tested, trial-and-error method of experimenting with various teaching approaches.
I initially tried to emulate teachers I'd had in the past. I had studied in four countries and had many great teachers in each of them. All I had to do was to pick one and emulate that person. I remembered a professor in my undergraduate engineering class who would stand very still and speak softly, but was a master storyteller. His way of sharing stories quietly added mystery to the subject, and I was always at the edge of my seat, listening intently to him. So I tried his style: I put on a suit just like his, and I spoke slowly and softly just like him. Needless to say, it was a disaster! Ten minutes into the class, I forgot what I was going to teach. I was dripping in sweat, and words wouldn't come out of my mouth.
I then abandoned this professor's technique and picked another whom I thought would be a better fit for my style. Of course, that didn't go well, either. It didn't take long for me to realize that every time I tried to imitate someone else I felt very uncomfortable inside.
Then I had a revelation: the great teachers I was trying to imitate had nothing in common. Each one's look, style and even approach to teaching was different from those of the rest. Some were tall, others short. Some were loud, others soft-spoken. Some were humorous, others serious. Some physically moved through the classroom, others stood still. Some wrote well on the boards, others had horrible handwriting. Some said a lot, others spoke very little. What was common among them was their ability to pique students' interest in the subject matter and keep them engaged. Everybody did this in his or her own way. And I did, too; consequently I discovered, over many years of experimentation, a few simple practices I believe can help you, too, become a better teacher.
So what do you have to do to become a better teacher?
Don't try to copy anyone. You will fail miserably. A teacher aping another is like a mediocre performer impersonating Elvis Presley: they will provide some temporary entertainment, but they will never be taken seriously.
The first step in becoming a better teacher is to be yourself. Students are forgiving. They will overlook your shortcomings if they know you care about them. What matters for students is that you are passionate and will do anything to help them learn. They know when you genuinely care and engage them in meaningful activities. If you can do this, they will be inspired. Inspired students are willing to listen, work hard and go the extra mile, and will even try to earn your respect and attention.
So be an original. Be yourself, and become a better teacher
TEDx Talk at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
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