a third meditation on being a teacher

On Monday, the day after tomorrow, a new academic year begins.  Actually, one could argue that the new academic year has already begun, with the campus buzzing with students new and returning, but my teaching begins on Monday morning.

I’m teaching this semester the same class that I taught last year and the 2 years before that.  I like teaching the same class for a number of years, because it gives me the opportunity to think deeply about how I approach the subject myself, whatever the subject may be, and how I structure it for my students.

As I’ve written about before, I teach both mathematics, graph theory at present, and aikido.  In thinking about all of the teaching I’ll be doing, I’ve made an observation.  This observation arises from the fact that in both the mathematics and the aikido I teach, I have a deeper understanding than I did a year ago.

This depth of understanding is good for me, in the sense that part of what I find interesting about teaching is the opportunity to deepen my own understanding, and is good for my students, in the sense that the better the understanding of the teacher, the better the experience of the student.

But within this understanding there lies a trap.  I encountered this trap directly a number of years ago, when I found myself thinking, I’ve been explaining these things to the students for years.  Why aren’t they understanding them yet?  The answer came to mind almost immediately.  My understanding has been growing deeper year on year, but each year, I am teaching a group of students that is encountering this material, be it mathematics or aikido, for the first time.

So each year, I need to engage in time travel, and I need to engage in more each year.  Each year, I get farther and farther from the starting point of the material I’m teaching, and I need to actively acknowledge that distance.   Failure to do so means that I’m not teaching at the same level that I taught the material when I first started, and as I go through the years, I may drift more and more.

An uncomfortable question lies at the heart of this observation.  Is it possible for a teacher to develop such a deep and advanced understanding of their material that they are no longer capable of teaching beginners or even intermediate level students?

I am convinced the answer is No.  But this is a qualified No, and one that relies on the willingness of the teacher to reflect on their own teaching.   After all, good teaching can be learned, and is learned by many thousands of people each year.  Nonetheless, I believe the trap is real, and as I walk into the lecture theatre on Monday morning and face a fresh group of students, I will step carefully.

~ by Jim Anderson on 26 September 2015.

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