A Primer for
Teaching in the University
by Bikika T. Laloo
The article discusses how the art of teaching is learned on the job, on the basis of personal experiences. It also touches some teaching methods, relationships with students and some ways and means for earning their respect.
Teaching is a learning experience. One believes that any good teacher would agree with that. No amount of training can fully equip a person for all that happens in the classroom. A new entrant to the teaching profession, despite possessing high degrees and (sometimes)-intensive training, is as raw as the students he/she has to face.
Some personal 'learning' experiences of the writer are discussed below. Probably, these will bring back memories for the veterans in the profession. It is also humbly hoped that the newcomers might learn a few lessons - they are welcome to pick what they might find useful and also to learn not to commit the same mistakes as the writer.
Planning and Preparation
Over the years, one has discovered that planning and preparation should be intense. Now those in the profession will argue, "that goes without saying." But one can tend to take things casually - not spending enough time reading and keeping up to date, depending mostly on textbooks and old class notes. At the University level the students are all adults. Most students will not swallow quietly just anything that the teacher dishes out. It is important to cover all bases. No amount of fine language, humour or friendliness can substitute solid facts and background knowledge about the topic that one is teaching. These (language, humour, friendliness etc.) can only supplement the facts. Ultimately, one's efficiency or the lack of it will show in the assignments, test papers and examination answer scripts that the students submit. A casual approach to planning and preparation will lead to problems such as not being able to properly answer students' questions and even not being able to lecture for a full hour - having not much to say.
There is no excuse for not keeping up-to-date. Even if one does not have access to such facilities as the INTERNET, most university libraries are well stocked with the latest journals. Admittedly, there are some journals that belong to the 'high - level' category, containing articles on subjects which most of us (particularly in third world countries) are still trying to grasp the meaning of. However most journals contain simple, up-to date articles on topics that one can relate to, and cite in the classroom. Of course, discussion with colleagues is another very important route - especially if these colleagues were one's teachers once. Discussion not only for keeping up-to-date but also for 'learning how to teach'. "Say only things you are confident about" is an advice that one has held on to, since a senior colleague first gave it.
Having reading as a favourite hobby also helps. The writer's staple diet of newspapers (local, national), newsmagazines and social magazines apart from professional journals, has always stood her in good stead ensuring that she is able to discuss with a fair amount of confidence almost anything under the sun.
Television also has its role of course. For example discussion on the Greenpeace ship 'Rainbow Warrior' that was sunk and buried in New Zealand was possible due to one's daily viewing of the programme 'Lonely Planet' on the Discovery Channel. The teaching of Information Science is made livelier using knowledge gained from the mass media.
Relationship with Students
As mentioned earlier, University students are adults with minds of their own. This is a group that one cannot take for granted, not only because they are adults with minds of their own, but more importantly because without them, one wouldn't be called a 'lecturer'.
Normally, if one is natural and comfortable with them, half the battle is won. The important thing is not to intimidate them. As a student, one had encountered some Readers and Professors (particularly those coming as visiting Fellows) with a variety of degrees (Ph.D., double Ph.D. etc.) attached to their names who failed miserably in making the students understand the topic - simply because they only wanted to show how clever they were. Many could not 'come down to our level.' Thus the humble approach, not the 'I know all' approach will make the students interested in the teacher and more importantly - in what he/she has to say.
If we are to earn the respect of the students, the following are some of the points to consider:
(a) Being punctual - it gives a bad impression when one's students are hanging around waiting for the teacher - they will invariably make noise and disturb the other teachers taking class. Punctuality also extends to the returning of their corrected assignments and test papers as soon as possible.
(b) Partiality is a big no no - their merit should count.
(c) Having a genuine interest in them - they can easily detect phony interest. At the same time there is no need to be over friendly to the extent that they walk all over one. Being friendly is one thing - but when the students' attitude becomes too casual (they start smoking, cracking unhealthy jokes, etc. in the presence of the teacher) it cheapens one's position. While one should be approachable, one should not encourage the students to hang around one's room for hours.
(d) A sense of humour helps. Of course the timing of the jokes is important. The students should be made to understand that there is a time for everything. One shouldn't mind taking pot shots at the self.
(e) Teachers need to have an exemplary lifestyle. The students do notice and discuss what one wears and says or whom one mixes with. A careless word or deed can affect their mindset quite deeply. Bad habits like smoking, drinking, abusive language, etc. would well be avoided or indulged in away from their presence. Controversial personal beliefs or ideas such as religious fanaticism, atheism, political leanings, racial prejudices, sexual preferences etc. would be better kept to oneself or discussed privately.
One can thus conclude as one had begun - that teaching is a learning experience. Nobody can claim to be a perfect teacher - there will be failures, yes- both small and big, but as the old adage assures - 'Failures are stepping stones to success.' So, while training and degrees are necessary - one ultimately learns on the job.