By Melissa Beers, Ph.D., The Ohio State University
There is no such thing as the perfect teacher.
Now, this is not to say I haven’t tried to achieve that elusive perfection. I spent a long time trying to be perfect — to have perfectly organized lectures with just the right examples and the perfect activities, and most of all the perfect image on every slide, even if I had to stay up half the night to find just the right one. Graduate school is often an exercise in trying to achieve the highest standards in many tasks at once — research, coursework, writing, and for some, clinical work. Just when you think you have a handle on everything, that’s usually when you get to start teaching.
I’ve had the great fortune to work with hundreds of graduate students teaching for the first time at Ohio State over the last 12 years, and I watch as they make that singular transformation from student to teacher. Being a part of such an important moment in someone’s academic career is an honor and a privilege I don’t take for granted. Yet, I have seen that this transition comes with many predictable concerns and worries. New teachers often fret: “What if I try to have a discussion and no one talks? What if I make a mistake and teach them the wrong thing?” And inevitably: “What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?”
I acutely recall having all these worries when I first started teaching. My program offered a teaching seminar prior to teaching, but when the class ended we were on our own to make our syllabi, prep our courses and figure out issues of practical implementation. Although my peers and program faculty expressed their confidence in me, I was deeply insecure and abjectly terrified. I urgently needed to prove my credibility to students who were mostly only a few years younger than I was. So, I loaded my course (statistics, no less!) with an unreasonable amount of content and planned almost-impossible tests once a week. I obsessively rehearsed practice problems so I wouldn’t make any errors in my calculations in front of the students. Petrified about being asked a question I might not be able to answer, I plowed relentlessly through the content so there wasn’t a chance for students to ask me anything. They were too overwhelmed to respond to my perfunctory, “any questions?” in the last few minutes of class. Honestly, I was relieved at the silence.
I thought I had to prove to students, to my program, and to myself that I was a “good teacher.” I also thought that being a “good teacher” was something you had or you didn’t have — some inherent, innate quality that I desperately wanted to show I possessed. Unsurprisingly, these early teaching experiences didn’t go well. Student evaluations that were (predictably) disappointing and critical only fueled my self-doubt and anxiety. Instead of asking for help and feedback, I walled myself off. I grumbled about my unmotivated, unappreciative students. Eventually I told myself I just wasn’t the teaching “type” and even decided against pursuing a career in academia.
Looking back, I can see that the root of my anxiety was the wrong mindset about teaching. My thinking about teaching was characterized by a fixed mindset. I viewed teaching competence as a fixed quantity — I was either going to be good at it or not, and I needed to prove that I had the chops for it. I took criticism personally and considered my poor student evaluations a personal failing. As we now know from the extensive research on mindset (Dweck, 2006), a fixed mindset leads to poor outcomes in many contexts where motivation and achievement matter, from education to sports to parenting to business. With such a perspective on teaching, I didn’t stand a chance.
Eventually, after a rather circuitous path through industry and back to academia, I came to embrace a growth mindset for teaching. It was positively freeing for me to view teaching as something that I could constantly work to improve. Ultimately I came to recognize the fallacy of being perfect. I accepted that some classes may just go better than others and there is always a way to rebound from a setback. Being asked a question I couldn’t answer off the top of my head was no longer a personal failing because there is no way any teacher can possibly know everything. Now, I’m delighted when students ask questions I hadn’t thought of before because we can find out the answer together. And when an assignment doesn’t play out the way I planned, I focus on what went well and how to get better results the next time. Most importantly — I ask for feedback all the time. I ask students for feedback early in the semester, at midterm, after assignments, and at the end of the semester. I invite colleagues to observe my teaching and I value hearing about what the class looked like from their perspective. Feedback stopped being paralyzing because with a growth mindset, feedback helps you get better. It doesn’t define you or reveal your flaws, and you certainly can’t improve without it. It was transformational for me to finally realize that teaching really wasn’t about me at all. I needed to stop worrying about what I was going to do in class and instead focus on what the students were going to do — and that made all the difference.
So, for those of you taking on the role of “teacher” in graduate school, please remember that there is no such thing as a “perfect teacher.” Effective teaching is not the result of talent or luck — it’s a constant process that takes sustained effort, collaboration, and support to achieve. Even the most accomplished teachers are always learning — in fact, the very best teachers work the hardest to improve. When you are new at something, especially teaching, ask for guidance every step along the way. Seek feedback from your peers, your mentors, your students, and use it. Let go of the harmful myth of perfection and the rigidity of a fixed mindset; look at each course as an opportunity to gain experience and grow, and that is precisely what will happen.
After all, isn’t that what exactly what we’d hope for from our students?
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House. Chicago
Thanks to my colleagues Kevin Apple, Ilana Seager, and Raechel Soicher for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
Melissa Beers, Ph.D., is Program Director for Introduction to Psychology and Coordinator for Introduction to Social Psychology, two high-enrollment general education courses at The Ohio State University. In this role she trains and supervises over 40 graduate teaching associates each year and oversees curriculum and assessment of course and general education learning objectives.