Learning to teach

Eighteen years ago, I stood up in front of my very first photography class, determined to appear knowledgeable and confident. That’s what teachers are, after all, aren’t they? When the 3½ -hour period that met once a week on Fridays, was over, I felt I had done a pretty good job: the students looked "pleased," most were thinking it was going to be an ok course. It turned out that way because I was prepared, but only just prepared. I had spent hours and hours before the class met, creating my first-ever PowerPoint presentation, arranging everything meticulously so that it flowed in a very logical, very clear way. Then, in preparation for each meeting after that, I crammed and created a new PowerPoint presentation for the new material we needed to cover. In other words, I was one week ahead of the class and I couldn't miss a beat for 16 weeks! I understand now, that that’s not an unusual situation for a teacher to be in. In fact, each time I was given a new course, I took for granted that I had to learn how to teach it. That is, uh... [said sheepishly] almost each time. About four years ago, I started teaching film photography at the College of DuPage, which involves: shooting 35mm B&W film, processing it, and printing some negatives as enlargements. Pretty basic stuff, I thought. Well, uh. Anyway... [said even more sheepishly] I went into it cold, because, (get ready for it) I thought that I knew it backwards. Hey! I had done it all a long time ago, and it hadn't changed since then, and I was doing a fairly good job at it back then - AS A STUDENT.... At my first class meeting (AS A TEACHER), I quickly realized that I had to study and learn the material so that I could present it to my students accurately and confidently. I had to learn how to teach the class! (yup). But I didn't do Powerpoints - no time and not the thing in a "laboratory classroom" (as opposed to a "lecture classroom.") Instead, I created very clear, concise instructions for all the processes and procedures, printing them by the score and giving them as handouts to the students to follow as they worked. Voila! Problem solved. Overall, I'm feeling pretty good about how I'm handling things in the classroom today. But, I still wonder about my teaching methods - how can I improve them?

Interestingly, just the other day, I went through a large cardboard box full of file folders of paperwork that belonged to a full-time teacher at COD who retired about three years ago, deciding what to keep and what to throw away. She taught several courses, including the darkroom course, for over 30 years. For every assignment that she gave, she had a folder filled, two inches thick, with sample photographs cut from magazines, so her students could see examples. There were many exams, tests, and quizzes that she created (naturally, I put a few of those aside to possibly glean from, in order to make my exams, tests, and quizzes better). But, most interestingly, she had folders and folders filled with many copies of handouts describing how to do all the procedures in, what was now, my course: Fundamentals of Film Photography. Some were typewritten, others were made with early word-processing software and printed using an impact printer (we're talking circa 1988, when she first started teaching). As I piled up the many, many copies of her many student handouts, I realized that she hadn’t handed them out!! And I believe I know why they weren’t handed out.... She learned, long ago, that teaching isn’t about handing out information, it’s about sharing knowledge and being confident that you know how to do it, because you really know the subject you’re teaching. The experience of cleaning out her locker (if you will) has made it obvious to me that she was always learning. But she wasn’t learning about the subject matter (necessarily), she knew that backwards; instead, she was learning, and relearning, how to teach the subject matter to each new student, bringing it to their level, and in turn bringing them up to her level.

From now on, I'm not going to make a big deal about the handouts (I call them "recipe sheets"). They will be available for reference in a small pile somewhere.


Thanks for lookin' in! May God bless your summer days.

Your friend,

Paul