Friday, March 16, 2012

I Said It Before and I Still Believe It: There Are No Short Cuts

Before I ever started this blog, I wrote a short little teaching book titled “Tips and Thoughts on Improving the Teaching Process in College--A Personal Diary.” I wanted to push myself to think about teaching and I wanted to encourage other folks to think about teaching. The book was a bit of work but it seemed like everyone would benefit. When finished, I put it up on web at and forgot about it. However, the book got a very nice review in The Chronicle of Higher Education and people started sending me questions or suggestions. For a while, I got emails from teachers around the world. What fun.

Eventually, I wanted to add to those original essays. I had more thoughts on teaching. Plus, I missed the writing. But, instead of starting a second book, I created this blog which has allowed me to stretch out the thinking and writing process indefinitely.

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting with a former student of mine who has gone on to get a Ph. D. and is now beginning her first tenure-track position. She recently joined the faculty of a major university. She told me that she had gone back to my original Teaching Tips book and that one essay in particular had been extremely meaningful to her as she began her career as a teacher. I was touched that she had consulted my writings as she started her teaching. So, I decided to reprint the essay that she said was helping her. So, JPD, this one is for you.

Learning The Secret For Becoming An Excellent Teacher

At a crucial point during my first semester as a faculty member, I was lucky enough to unlock the ultimate secret for improving as a teacher. This IS the magic bullet. That was more than 30 years ago and, in my mind, the secret has not changed one iota in all these intervening decades. If you have a serious desire to do a better job in the classroom, this is the one absolute fact that needs to be accepted--sooner rather than later.

The secret is nothing more than a simple formula:

If it takes a person X number of hours to be an average teacher


it will take that same person 2X hours to be a good teacher


3X hours to be an excellent teacher.

Here is the moment of truth; it is time to face reality. Anyone who has a genuine wish to become an excellent teacher must be willing to invest a significant number of hours. There are no shortcuts. If you are reading this book in hopes of discovering quick and easy tricks, my advice is simple: Close the book and walk away. Preparing for class, grading tests and papers, working with students, and all the rest of the normal, daily teaching activities require an almost infinite number of hours of thought and labor.

How much time are you willing and able to devote to improve? That is the question that each teacher needs to address in an honest and realistic fashion. We live in a hectic society; almost no one has sufficient hours to complete everything that needs doing. We all scramble to become more efficient just to keep our heads above the proverbial waters.

Teaching takes time; good teaching takes more time; excellent teaching can quickly become a 24/7 pastime. Faculty members face serious pressures to research and write; committee assignments seem to multiply like the heads of the Hydra. Time is like gold.

But there will always be periods when a class is struggling. You are dissatisfied and frustrated with the failure of students to grasp concepts that seem self-evident. In such situations, the number one remedy is to put in additional hours. To tell the truth, that extra time might best be spent sitting alone in the corner of a dark room thinking about the topic, the assignments, the class, and the each student. Such reflection is helpful.

Radical (or even subtle) improvements in the educational diamond are difficult when the teacher is flying through life at warp speed. If it is important, invest the time. Because the hours in life are finite, learn to make use of moments that might otherwise be wasted. I have a 25-minute commute to campus. During that drive, I often listen to National Public Radio; other days, it is a book on tape. On occasion, though, the sound is turned off and I mentally walk through the steps plotted for the coming class, trying to envision exactly what is supposed to happen. When I take this third path, class invariably goes better. Adequate time has been invested and nothing is more essential in teaching.

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