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Center for Teaching Excellence

The Teaching Voice

Posted by on March 31, 2014 | General | 3 Comments »

I guess now would be a good time to confess that when I first began college teaching I had no idea what I was doing. I taught my first classes as a missionary in a tiny Colombian Bible institute in the mid-‘80s and then stepped up to “real” teaching in the early ‘90s during my doctoral fellowship.

I was terrible. Some of my former students from those days are friends and colleagues now, and they don’t seem to remember how bad I was. But I do. The truth of it struck harshly when I auditioned for my first job as a college professor. The students savaged me in their survey response, saying I was dull. “You seem like a really nice guy,” said the sympathetic dean in the exit interview. “But the students weren’t engaged by your teaching. Sorry.”

Thus my first job opportunity ended in failure as a result of my poor teaching skills. To say I was humiliated is an understatement. I began to question seriously whether my pursuit of a PhD had been a sad miscalculation.

My grad school mentor was genuinely frustrated for me but quickly perceived the root of my problem. “Matthew,” he said without the slightest trace of cynicism, “teaching is a dog-and-pony show. It’s acting. You need to develop a performance style that works for you.”

I was appalled. Insulted. Horrified. “But that’s not who I am!” I insisted, choking on what I thought must be the bitter ashes of my career. “That doesn’t seem honest.”

“Well, that’s teaching. If you want a job as a college professor, you’re going have to learn how to do it.”

So, on his advice, I enrolled in a class on pedagogy.

The class was cutting-edge for the early ‘90s. I learned all about teaching styles and learning styles and active learning and lesson plans, etc. It was a very touchy-feely experience with lot of “manipulatives” and all those Parker Palmer books. In my final teaching demo, I pulled things together beautifully and wowed my peers with a lesson featuring a scene from The Karate Kid. “What we do as educators is essentially the same as what Mr. Miyagi did with Daniel,” I said. “Wax on; wax off.” My classmates still mention that lesson to me when we run into each other at conferences.

So the way this story is supposed to go is that I took the knowledge from the pedagogy class and used it to miraculous effect, gleaning valuable life lessons worthy of a faded bestseller in the bargain bin at your bookstore. But things didn’t quite go that way.

The truth is that I discarded about three quarters of what I had learned by the end of my first year of college teaching and most of the rest by the end of my second fulltime year. I continued to read the hot-selling books on teaching … and then continued to ignore what they had to say. I understand how this sounds, but please bear with me. I don’t for a minute think that I teach better than any of these experts. And the conviction that I could not use their advice was not a display of either scorn or indifference. I care very acutely about teaching and learning and about the students I teach. If it were otherwise, I would be doing something else with my life.

I did acquire something vital from the pedagogy class. What I found and then worked hard to improve over the following years was a Teaching Voice. I believe this is different from what my mentor meant by a “dog-and-pony show,” but he helped me take the first step in the right direction. It was a rhetorical step, really, and entailed getting out of my own head and into the audience, learning how to hear myself as a teacher. I had to ask a pretty tough question—if I were the one sitting in the seat, would I want to listen to this guy?

Finding my voice as a teacher and then developing it ended up having very little to do with much of the material I encountered under the heading of “Good Teaching.” As I gradually discarded the latest techniques and methods, I realized it was because, having tried them on for size, they just didn’t fit. And my students realized it as well. There was the day I threw in some “active learning” into a class in an attempt to energize a couple of students who were lagging. To my surprise, I got a lot of negative feedback: “What the heck was that? That’s not you. Please don’t do it again.”

Long before the buzz on “flipping the classroom” heated up, I tried an innovative experiment—the students worked outside of class, processing and digesting the material I assigned. They then presented the material, I did some follow up and we engaged in active discussion. I thought it was a huge success and confidently awaited my affirming evaluations. To my dismay, they were the worst I have ever received. Fully two-thirds of the class wrote something to the effect, “It would have been much better if you had taught the class.”

It strikes me that a lot of the talk about good technique in class today is less about voice than about flare. Having trouble connecting with students? Well, let’s just use cell phones to reach them “where they are.” This may actually be good advice on the face of it, but it privileges a singular perspective that ignores something critical. In other words, “technique” and “technology” should feature a “Batteries Not Included” warning.

I am not at all trying to suggest that clever techniques, clickers and podcasts have no merit. The point is this: technique and technology cannot replace the intangible factors of presence and connection. If they do not serve to amplify an already established voice, they defeat their purpose. They are equipment, like slate and chalk. And for some of us they can create clutter rather than clarity.

With respect to the latest teaching innovations, it would be nice to hear more qualified dialog. Too much of the promotion seems to force a perspective in favor of the going concern. And the underlying assumption is that “one size fits all,” and those who do not adopt the latest are doomed to irrelevance. Why do we focus so little of our energies on assisting new (and not-so-new) teachers to find an effective teaching voice?

In fairness, finding one’s voice is no easy task. Hawking wares in the marketplace is infinitely easier. One is not likely to find the “Felix Felicis” elixir of teaching success at a weekend workshop.

If experience is a guide, I suspect the task of finding one’s teaching voice is similar to that of the writer. It requires practice, perspiration and a willingness to make mistakes. It demands open and honest self-critique and, most importantly, a driving desire to get it better. For in this business of teaching, one never “arrives.” One simply steps into a new train car with a new set of passengers.

There aren’t as many resources on this topic as one might wish, but a good place to start is Sarah Deel’s confessional article from 2004. Ms. Deel teaches biology at Carleton College in Minnesota:

  1. Jordan Holt says:

    Being new to the teaching profession (second semester), it’s nice to hear that the lack of surety in teaching performance is not limited to myself. I walk away from some sessions feeling as though I connected with students and that class really engaged in the content. Though I walk away from others feeling like I’ve been teaching to an empty room. I have a sense of my teaching voice developing incrementally, mostly through trial-and-error experiments. And I’m hoping that time increases clarity. In the meantime, I’m grateful for this CTE blog, from which I have gleaned a lot of helpful concepts.

  2. All the best, Jordan. I’m confident you’re start has been much better than mine was. 😉

  3. Jordan, I’m so glad you found the blog useful. We have some talented contributors.

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