(Dis)Connected Teaching

Janina Tosic

HS Ruhr West

After nine years as an academic developer, I went back to teaching last fall. A bit naïvely, I viewed this career change as an exciting challenge to finally apply everything I had learned about teaching and learning to a difficult teaching context, a large required Chemistry and Physics 101 module for engineering majors. I wanted to show everybody "how it is done."

I used Dee Fink’s approach (2013) to define a vision for my module, formulate learning outcomes on various levels, design teaching, and learning activities as well as formative and summative assessments. I had it all planned out and “just” needed to put this plan into action each week. Three weeks into the semester, I started to struggle. As a chemist, I had neither a recollection nor a deep understanding of the physics I was required to teach. I had to learn and relearn in order to prepare my lectures through our 15-week semester. I ended up working about 10 hours daily, with only four days off during the Christmas break. I was ashamed about missing subject expertise and consequently did not ask my mentor or my colleagues for help.

Of course, my 200 students noticed my mistakes, incompetence to answer questions, and inappropriate reactions when I was stressed and tired. They voiced their disappointment in a mid-semester teaching analysis poll as I did not meet their expectations of what a good teacher was. Again, I kept silent and did not seek support out of shame. For the first time since I started teaching in 2006, I did not enjoy it but dreaded it.

How could I confess to anybody that I was not good enough, that I was struggling, that I was, in fact, a failure?

Objectively assessing the semester after it was over, students’ learning outcomes and exam results were comparable with previous semesters. However, the semester scarred me. It became apparent that despite all the work and effort I put in, the connection with my students was completely missing. Something, which always came naturally and easily, was not there anymore. Even if the evaluation results were only .5 on a scale of 5 below the university average, the comments labeled me as inauthentic, unreliable, and even rude.

This feedback was debilitating. I never felt this ashamed of myself (Brown, 2010). My professional identity was that of a learning facilitator; somebody who connects well with her students understands their perspectives and is trusted. My first semester as a full-time teacher dismembered my self-perception.

How did I move forward?

I took a much-needed vacation. During this time, I realized that the lost connection with my students was at the heart of the problem. Focusing on this, I developed the following strategies using various sources, the most important one being “Connected Teaching” by Harriet Schwartz (2019).

1. Open up and be vulnerable

I do not armor up anymore before I go to class. Instead, I try to show my true self. Students want to be with us as teachers, not a role we play. They need the human connection that is only truly there when we dare to be vulnerable and put aside our shame. To achieve this, I talk about my struggles concerning the content, which I am still not proficient with, challenges of being a teacher, and challenging experiences I dealt with as a student. I want to normalize doubt and failure to reduce shame (Brown 2012). I also encourage students to talk about their challenges in class and office hours, acknowledging their feelings.

2. Put students first

When we go to the doctor, we want their full professional and empathetic attention, no matter how they are or how their day went. Before my lectures or office hours, I tell myself that my purpose is to be there for my students. I calm myself down and focus. My office door is open one full day a week for students to come in and get support. I take their questions, struggles, needs, and emotions seriously. During each 90-minute-lecture, students get ten minutes to share something important to them, be it the start of Ramadan and what this means to them, or why there are not enough parking spaces.

3. Care about students

I care about my students deeply. I listen with my whole heart and answer honestly. I have laughed with students, and I have cried with them. As fellow humans, they deserve my care.

4. Treat students as responsible adults

Treating students as responsible adults means that I do everything I can to facilitate learning within my 40 hour-week, and I expect students to do the same. They have to put in the necessary time and effort. It is their responsibility to seek my help if they do not understand. However, I always treat students respectfully and kindly. Teachers tend to complain about student behavior that we exhibit ourselves. If you have never asked for an extension to a call for papers, great. However, most of us have. Multiple times. Remember the relief you felt when the editor granted it? Therefore, I give my students some slack or even break the rules sometimes.

Life is complicated enough, and being a pedant would make it unnecessarily hard.

5. Be transparent

I am honest with my students concerning my teaching strengths and weaknesses. I tell them, I am not a physicist and that there may be questions I cannot answer during lectures but will upload to our LMS afterward. I believe in a participatory approach to teaching and explain my teaching strategy as well as its benefits and challenges. I discuss decisions with students and take on their suggestions and ideas.

6. Be kinder with myself

This is work in progress, and I admit that I cannot get over the experience of my first semester as a university teacher without help. I am in therapy due to depression, and the feeling of not being good enough or worthy of connection is still there sometimes. I am in the middle of letting go of whom I thought I had to be as a teacher. It was not other people who criticized and doubted my teaching capabilities. It was me. However, I have started to see my rising skills and realize that I have different teaching qualities than most of my colleagues.

Overall, focusing on connecting with my students worked well, not only for me but for our whole learning community. I received emails from students thanking me for understanding them and their situations and giving students a sense of belonging. My evaluation results improved as I was now rated about .5 higher than the University’s average. Better relationships also led to better learning outcomes. The module failure rate dropped from an average of 50% to only 9%.

If you open yourself up like this and thereby become vulnerable, there is always the possibility to get hurt. Fortunately, it did not happen to me; but it is a risk. My experience is that students do not misuse my trust, but repay it.

Discussion questions:

1. How do you feel about yourself as a teacher?

2. What role does connecting with your students play for your teaching?

3. How do you feel about your students?

Suggested Reading:

Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability. TEDxHouston: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability#t-1198773.

Brown, B (2012). Listening to shame. TED2012: https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_listening_to_shame#t-1203970.

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences. An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Schwartz, H. (2019). Connected Teaching. Relationship, Power, and Mattering in Higher Education. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing

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