The topic: teaching as a high risk profession keeps emerging this year, creating a strange pattern of forced reflection. It became particularly prevalent a couple of weeks ago, when for the first time in months a student challenged me during a seminar.
Teaching a high risk profession: or not?
Most of you will know in Germany the whole ethos in higher education is about academic discourse, about challenge and critical thinking. As a student you are expected to challenge the lecturer and lead a solid argument. My alma mater was no exemption. However, in Britain teaching seems to be very different. Having been on both the student and lecturer side the expectations are more about ‘being told’ and ‘being taught’ or respectively doing the telling and pointing. In short, while I keep trying to push my students out of their comfort zones, I have become rather accustomed to not being challenged.
When I was challenged by a student last week, my first reaction surprised me: unexpectedly, in the pit of my stomach, a defensive me wanted to air her opinion and go to war. With this reaction came the realisation: I have gone native! Luckily, I managed to squelch the defensive impostor*, and within 5 minutes the whole study group had a great conversation going. All I needed to do was, to occasionally throw in another perspective. I love these dynamics. They almost feel like cooking: the stew is bubbling happily on the stove, and only now and then need I to throw in some spice, making it more interesting.
Various Shades of Risk
The next day I talked to my colleague about issues of risk taking as a teacher (lecturer). The issues we reflected upon were the need to be very confident and secure in ourselves, to react appropriately, no matter what the students throw at you—and boy can they come up with stuff! It does not mean I have to know everything or every detail, but it is about the way of thinking and the way of arguing. I believe life becomes much easier, if we don’t strive to ‘win’ these arguments, because ‘wining’ is just for the ego, but learning as teacher and students in an organic process is so much more rewarding, and I belief effective. So, if a student has a good point, or an idea I have not considered in this context, or disagrees; it is potential. The potential to create new knowledge, insights and perspectives. Therefore, taking challenge as opportunity has, for me so far, always resulted in some of the best sessions.
Yet, there are other aspects of risk taking as teacher. Facing the challenges students pose is only a small part of the risks we take. I think one of the biggest risks in any form of teaching, is to be authentic, to let your students see you and not a role you play. Now, Goffman would probably disagree, we inhibit diverse roles in diverse social environments, but everything is a matter of degree. Little anecdotes of my own experiences, shortcomings (these in particular seem a favourite source of amusement) or successes are usually well received****. They help building trust between the students and me, and this trust is necessary when I initiate activities that enforce critical thinking, taking up new perspectives, and thus in turn ask my students to take risks in truly engaging with the learning process and renegotiating their learner identities.
Another risk factor is being able to see when a student needs space, and decides his or her form of engagement is observation, rather than jumping in. Being able to understand this as a student choice and not a criticism of my teaching is sometimes difficult—after all, a lot of thought and planning goes into ‘doing more than just talking at them’. If a student asks me: ‘Do I have to do this?’ I usually say that they are an adult and I cannot make the decision for them. They are welcome to participate but they are just as welcome to sit back and observe.** In my experience the students who ask if they have to participate tend to be the students, who needed some form of reassurance, and who get involved wholeheartedly. Which makes me wonder how much of, what can appear as challenge, is a need for assertion that all is well and within the accustomed parameters. Now all of this is anecdotal, of course, but certainly worthwhile a more formalised exploration.
*and all of this in a time span of maybe 10-20 seconds … Yes, time is a very strange matter.
**I need to work on ways of completely taking any possible passive-aggressive notion out of that statement. Tips welcome!
*** You will find more incredible reasons for detention here: http://www.collegehumor.com/picture/6939372/if-youre-gonna-get-detention-these-are-the-best-ways-to-do-it
**** most recently this lead a student to believe I do like cats (as in crazy cat lady) and send me this picture, it referred to an article the student mentioned in seminar and I asked for the link: