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Natural born teachers?

My first teaching position in higher education, now nearly two decades ago, was as a teaching assistant. Professor King gave lectures several times a week in the department’s main service course, and I attended his lectures, held office hours and evaluated the students’ weekly assignments and their exams, tasks that I shared with another lowly teaching apprentice. Dr. King was the department chair in the department in which I was a PhD candidate, and was one of its most engaging speakers. He was an accomplished storyteller, and regularly managed to captivate his audience of more than 100 students, introducing them to the rudiments of theory, with anecdotes and facts both serious and humorous (and he did this all without the benefit of computers –back then, not even course descriptions appeared online!). Some of his ‘bits’ are part of my own disciplinary storytelling repertoire today. I learned as much from Dr. King that semester, about university politics and about university teaching, as I learned from the weekly “conference course” that, as a new teaching assistant, I was required to attend.

My experiences that semester also clearly shaped my view of a persistent and pernicious idea that I have regularly heard bandied about on both sides of the Atlantic: good teachers are born, not made. Maybe one reason this myth persists is that effective teaching gets confused with being entertaining. Perhaps it is a little easier for the more charismatic to become effective teachers than it is for the rest of us mere mortals, but natural charisma is not a sufficient condition for effective teaching, nor is it a necessary one. Teaching is quite different from storytelling, and effective teaching involves more than entertaining an audience. No matter what personality traits you have, being a good teacher takes work and time, investment in developing both communication and organizational skills. This brings us to another reason this myth persists: perhaps it provides a convenient excuse for less effective teaching. Sadly, the persistence of this myth means that the effort that we put into developing our skills as effective teachers can go unrecognized.

It’s possible that Dr. King had some sensibility for organization, as well as the gift of the gab, even as young man, but talent needs to be developed. Nearing the end of his career, he certainly looked like a natural born teacher. My fellow teaching assistants and I, in contrast, did not. As part of our “conference course”, we had to prepare sample lessons, on which we were critiqued by the course supervisor and our peers. One fellow participant, I can still recall vividly: Ralph mustered the reserves to make his points while he stood sweating in front of the blackboard, chalk in hand, shaking so much that he was unable to write legibly. I remember how deeply I felt for him and how much of myself I saw in him. Ralph’s first sample lesson was, perhaps, the most memorably bad example, but to be honest, the rest of us were not much better. Over the course of semester, we all improved, Ralph perhaps most dramatically. Even the new teaching assistants whose presentation skills were already quite strong had to work on other organizational and communication skills needed for handling evaluation and feedback for students; we all had something to learn. Half of us have since gone on to practice those skills and develop them further in meaningful careers as teachers in higher education. I don’t know how we would all measure up to Dr. King, master storyteller, today, but I am willing to bet that the contrast would not be as dramatic as it was then.

Who is a natural born teacher? Don’t look at me.

Jocelyn Ballantyne is senior tutor at University College Utrecht and Teaching Fellow 2013 – 2015. 1403 jocelyn ballantyne

Ballantyne, J.C. (Jocelyn)
15 May 2014

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