(Some reflections after 27 years of teaching including four years as Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning)
Steven Bouma-Prediger, Leonard and Marjorie Maas Professor of Reformed Theology, Hope College
Teaching is an art, the practice of which is best measured, in my view, according to what I call “The Three C’s”: competence, creativity and care. In other words, my own standards of excellence in teaching are competence in mastering the subject matter of one’s discipline(s), creativity in structuring how students learn that subject matter, and care for students as the (both gifted and troubled) people they are. No adequate understanding or evaluation of teaching effectiveness can ignore any one of these three components.
Disciplinary competence. There is simply no substitute for knowledge of one’s subject. Creativity in organizing learning and care for students cannot make up for or replace the lack of adequate knowledge of one’s discipline or academic field. If teaching calculus, then one simply must know the basic concepts and techniques of differentiation and integration. If teaching psychology, then one simply must know the research on cognition and group process and the stages of human development. If teaching philosophy, then one simply must know the works of Aristotle and Aquinas and Kant. Excellence in teaching involves much more than mastery of subject matter, but it is not genuine excellence without at least this. In short, competence is a necessary though not sufficient feature of all truly effective teaching.
Pedagogical creativity. Many teachers find the real challenge (and the enduring joy) of teaching in pondering how to teach. In other words, given a certain subject matter and a specific group of students, the question is: how do I structure the learning situation and/or environment so as to best facilitate actual learning? Given all the particularities of this course–these students, at their levels of development, with their needs and desires, with this topic or subject, at this place and this time–how exactly does one design activities so that students learn more easily and effectively? I have learned much in this regard from carefully reflecting on my own experience as a student with master teachers and from being open to colleagues who share their zany ideas and irrepressible enthusiasm. For example, I am much more attentive now (after 27 years of college teaching) to how space is arranged in a classroom, to how group discussion is facilitated, to the amazing variety of ways in which students learn. Indeed, I avoid some rooms because the space is ill-suited to learning and I sometimes have class outside. As with competence, however, creative pedagogy, though important, is not enough. Creativity is a necessary but not sufficient condition of all truly effective teaching.
Personal care. The last of “The Three C’s” is the most important and yet is the most difficult to assess. My own experience, and that of virtually every teacher with whom I have spoken, confirms that long after most of the “content” of the course is forgotten, what we remember most about those master teachers from whom we have been privileged to learn is the care they showed for us as students. These expressions of care take countless forms–an encouraging remark on a paper, a casual conversation outside of class, a pat on the back, a stern rebuke, a hug in time of need. Often we teachers think them insignificant, but our students know otherwise. Because care is blind without knowledge, I work hard to get to know my students. I learn all their names and faces (with the help of photos from the college website) by the end of the second week of class. I have all my students in my office for ten-minute appointments during the first week or so of the semester. I spend a lot of time reading student journals and writing comments on student papers. Only if I know who is in my class will I be able to teach well and create a community of care.
The importance of The Three C’s has been clearly reinforced in my work these last four years as Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning. While not necessarily using this language, both in their pedagogy and in their reflections on their pedagogy my faculty colleagues almost always mention one or more of these three fundamentals. They speak of gaining competence in new academic fields and experimenting with new teaching strategies and finding creative ways to get to know their students. Yet I fear these Three C’s can get lost in the forest of assessment acronyms and seemingly endless discussions of new technology. How do we assess our students’ learning and adopt new teaching technology with these three C’s in mind?
In sum, I constantly remind myself that I teach students, not (just) subject matter. I teach Jim and Marla, Aricelia and Alberto, Wenjin and Yong Chul–each with their person-specific hopes and fears–and only secondarily (in my case) theology and ethics and environmental studies. This reminder alerts me to the fact that my students are almost always (like the rest of us) in some way wounded, hurting, in need of grace. I try very hard to be mindful of this and orient my teaching accordingly, knowing that all too often I fail to be attentive or caring enough. Proper remembrance of this fact renders teaching extremely difficult and yet also provides moments supremely rewarding. May each of us who inhabit the vocation of teaching find our share of such moments, and be grateful.