Teaching beyond comfort zones

Last year, I LOVED teaching. I spent (way too much) time prepping for class, following up with students, giving detailed feedback. I really connected with the cohort and wanted to make a difference. This year, I got a bit jaded. A few bad experiences with power-hungry academics tainted my love of teaching. I drew a line – I no longer was happy to do truckloads of work, for which I wasn’t getting paid. And really, this should be a non-issue, because in any other workplace you get paid for the work you do, and it is unrealistic to be expected to work overtime with no compensation (PhD students as course tutors don’t seem to fall under this assumption).

However, upon reflection I think my teaching style relies on my heavy involvement in the course. Having all administrative components on-point, replying to each and every student enquiry (even though it’s up on the forums/course webpage…), and also being across all course content makes me being a mean teacher work well. And by “mean”, it’s more like I push students out of their comfort zones, into what I hope is their zone of proximal development. I assign students a problem, but no, I won’t give them a step-by-step guide. I will allocate students into groups, but no, I won’t tell them how/where to get into said groups. I will give students really hard problems to solve, and no, I won’t hold their hands. I changed by title (executive decision) from course tutor to course ‘facilitator’. I don’t want to step students through answers – I want them to find their own way, and to bounce off myself and their peers to get there. Essentially, I teach to facilitate independent and student-centered learning.

This teaching style worked really well last year, but wasn’t such a hit this year. Accounting for cohort differences, I have been trying to rack my brain as to why my teaching wasn’t as well-received. The only difference I could really identify was the amount of time I spent on course administration and the level of difficulty of the problems I was setting (no hardcore maths – think more creative problem solving). I don’t think I was a terrible teacher, not by a long shot, and I do think my cohort was particularly lacking independence, drive, and, maturity this year, but I also think that I could have possibly pushed them a bit too far out of their zone of proximal development. I think this ‘too far’ is a perception issue – I know what I was asking of my students was nothing extraordinary, or terribly difficult, it was just different. Without the safety-scaffold that was crafted by me working part-time teaching (and full-time PhD), students felt less comfortable in taking risks and their learning suffered.

This was highlighted to me in a rather different situation. Being part of the teaching team for an IARU Global Summer Program this winter (I know, welcome to the southern hemisphere), I taught one 2.5 hour workshop of their third day in the intensive 4-week course. I used my normal teaching style, and gosh I was horrified at how ‘slow’ these students were – not intelligence wise, but in terms of getting their feet wet and jumping into the tasks given. Again, I think this comes down to their perceived safety zone. Which definitely puzzled me, as these students had chosen to travel half way around the world to only be frozen by a new environment and teaching style. I thought the ice-breaker and setting-the-scene workshops were executed well, but I think students need more time to adjust and digest all the new information, to feel comfortable in a new learning environment.

Comfort zones are a funny thing, and sometimes I silently wonder to my students – why are you at university if you only want to stay in your comfort zone?

I guess for now I am happy to be the mean teacher that pushes them further than they thought possible!

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