Teaching the Teachers

Teaching the skills of teaching has taken a back burner to publication and grant writing—to the detriment of both faculty members and students.
By Nancy L. Beckerman

New tenure-track faculty members come into academia expecting to be able to devote substantial energy and expertise to teaching. They often find, however, that they must learn to navigate a multitude of other, competing demands. The quality of classroom teaching has been increasingly marginalized. Numerous interdisciplinary studies published in the last decade have demonstrated that the normative expectations of incoming faculty members have emphasized publication without placing equal emphasis on teaching. In many disciplines, a record of scholarly publication has become more critical for tenure and promotion across all three tenure-track professorial ranks, and deans have identified publication as the most important consideration for tenure and promotion.

The current recession has resulted in another labor- and time-intensive demand that can divert a faculty member from classroom teaching: the need to obtain external funding. With higher education institutions experiencing diminished internal and external financial support for research, many new faculty members have already felt the pressure to succeed at grant writing.

Classroom teaching, meanwhile, is surprisingly the least visible of the educator’s responsibilities. It is an endeavor that remains private, with student evaluations and collegial classroom observations the chief means by which it is evaluated for tenure and promotion.

Teacher Preparation

Teaching in higher education requires a complex and multidimensional knowledge of the content of a given course as well as the knowledge of how to teach it. Fay Rouseff-Baker, executive director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Parkland College in Illinois, has studied how best to prepare college teachers for teaching. She has demonstrated that what was true a decade ago is even more evident today: while most incoming faculty members have proven expertise in their respective research areas, they are often poorly prepared as teachers.

Mid-career and senior faculty members, as well as administrators, need to support and mentor their junior colleagues better and emphasize excellence in classroom teaching. Teaching is a complex endeavor in which the teacher has to create a learning atmosphere that is simultaneously safe and challenging, fosters intellectual exchange and curiosity, and promotes skill development. But studies show that new faculty members typically experience chronic doubts and insecurity about their ability to master and articulate the content and control classroom dynamics.

We need to listen to our new colleagues to hear whether they are confident about the effectiveness of their teaching. Numerous researchers have confirmed the correlation between a positive sense of teaching efficacy and effective teaching practices as well as the correlation between strong teacher self-efficacy—defined as the extent to which teachers believe they can affect student learning—and student achievement.

Faculty development and mentoring activities, however, rarely address basic pedagogical principles. As the medical education expert Linda Pololi has pointed out, many faculty members believe that good teaching comes “naturally.” Some teachers do have an intuitive knowledge of pedagogical principles, but formal knowledge of educational principles is rare. It is critical, just as it is with students, for experienced faculty members to provide mentoring and meaningful feedback that will foster the growth of their junior colleagues as teachers.

Curriculum for Mentoring

Mentoring in higher education has historically focused on academic career development, which has included several domains but has not necessarily addressed teaching. A successful faculty mentoring program should revolve around classroom teaching, including the examination of pedagogical principles and strategies across different disciplines.

As education scholars Randi Nevins Stanulis and Robert E. Floden showed in a 2009 article in the Journal of Teacher Education, those who participate in mentoring have significantly higher teaching scores than those who do not receive mentoring on teaching. An effective curriculum for mentoring new faculty members should include four components:

  • review of educational theory
  • development and mastery of a diversity of teaching techniques
  • collegial networking and the reciprocal process of testing theory 
  • examination of teaching practices

Those who were exposed to such a curriculum in medicine, nursing, law, and the humanities overwhelmingly reported significant improvements in their classroom teaching skills, according to a 2009 study in Medical Teacher.

The faculty mentoring program at my institution, Yeshiva University, is offered to all new faculty members and provides a group mentoring venue. We use the general curriculum areas listed above, with a specific emphasis on classroom teaching. The mentoring includes both knowledge- and skill-building exercises, with the integration of reading material, group discussion, presentations, and vignettes about teaching challenges and teachable moments. The program is designed to enhance skills in educational assessment, classroom management, teaching, curriculum development, and student advising and to improve understanding of the ethics of teaching. New faculty members have consistently rated the sessions on classroom teaching as the most meaningful and rewarding part of the program.

A review of successful mentoring programs revealed that the emphasis on teaching in mentoring resulted in more enthusiasm for teaching, increased interest in educational research, higher publication rates, and greater numbers of presentations about education at professional association meetings. Those who have researched mentoring have reported that new faculty members who learn pedagogical principles in mentoring relationships are more aware that students learn best when they are personally invested and are actively engaged, receive prompt and comprehensible feedback, and have an opportunity to work cooperatively with their classmates and teachers.

Preparation of excellent teachers who will, in turn, be able to train and mentor future generations of educators and practitioners is always of critical importance. Senior faculty members should provide junior colleagues in-class observation not solely for promotion and tenure but also to give feedback on the development of classroom teaching skills. While most teachers have an opportunity to review their student evaluations, they often do not have the opportunity to review in aggregate with a mentor the strengths and challenges of their teaching as perceived by their students. Academics should be advocates for the importance of mentoring and should not accept the overriding pressures to publish and pursue external research funding at the expense of excellent teaching.

Nancy L. Beckerman is a professor in Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. She directs a mentoring program for all incoming faculty members at the university and has published on HIV/AIDS care, family therapy, and higher education.