— Jeanne M. Slattery
Some people are born teachers. I was not. When I first started teaching 35 years ago I stood up in front of the class with pages of notes — including jokes. I was awkward and uninspired. I focused on content and rarely seriously considered the things that I now see as most important: critical thinking, writing, empathy, interpersonal skills, quantitative reasoning.
I believe I am a very good teacher now. I know that I am a committed one. What changed? Two things: I am married to someone who was a natural in the classroom and I learned from observing him and others. Perhaps more importantly, I went to one of the first meetings of a group called Partners in Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.
That first year, I partnered with Kristen Marshall, a faculty member in the Communications department. We sat in on and videotaped each other’s classes, interviewed each other’s students, and met regularly. In addition, the whole group met monthly over food and readings.
Kristen and I were not a natural pairing and never became close, yet the things that we did together that year changed my view of the teaching process. She challenged my views of teaching, what I should be doing in the classroom, and what my students were doing in and out of class. She opened my eyes to other ways of seeing teaching, for which I am eternally thankful.
Partners only met in this format for the first year, but we continued to hold regular meetings on Friday afternoons at Michelle’s, a local coffee shop. We offered small workshops and brought in speakers with national reputations. We offered regular master classes, which we described to the university community. We began writing about teaching in a newsletter nine years ago, then an e-newsletter, then this blog.
More than that, Partners gave me a sense that teaching was important and valued by my colleagues, and that I wasn’t alone in seeing that. Each time we met we talked about the things that we were struggling with, but as importantly, we discussed the successes we’d experienced in the previous week. These informal meetings created an atmosphere that valued focusing on teaching, taking risks in our teaching, and trying new approaches. Equally important, we discussed our growth outside the classroom: research, service, professional growth. In fact, I (successfully) went up for promotion when I did only because of my colleagues’ support and encouragement.
One of the things that made Partners work is that we were and are a faculty group. At various points we have received grants and regular funding from administration, but we are an informal group of people who work on teaching because we choose to, not because someone tells us to. We have chosen the things that we are interested in and how we want to approach them. This intellectual and professional freedom has made a huge difference.
I’ve been involved with Partners for 20 years. In that period we’ve encountered an array of administrators. Some have supported us. Others, less so. The ones we’ve most appreciated have been those who have nurtured us, recognized the climate we have been building, and gave us funds to help us meet our goals. Thank you. And thanks to all of my faculty colleagues who have been instrumental in my development as a teacher.
This piece especially profited from Melissa K. Downes’ thoughtful and insightful comments on earlier drafts.
Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and will be publishing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives in 2016. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org