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This issue of CDTL Brief is the first of a two-part instalment featuring the teaching practices of faculty members who have won the Excellent Teacher Award for three consecutive academic years (2001/2002–2004/2005).

September 2005, Vol. 8, No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
"I teach to watch the lights come on": Reflections on Best Practices
 
Associate Professor Chng Huang Hoon
Department of English Language & Literature
 

Introduction

Teaching is as much about production as it is about reception. No matter how much effort we as teachers put into preparation and presentation, in the end, it is how our module and ourselves have been received by the target audience-our students-that clue us into how we have done, or more accurately, how students think we have done. For this reason, when the student feedback is released each year, I scrutinise the qualitative feedback to determine how my teaching has been received. This attention to feedback is among the many ways in which I reflect on my 'best practices'-what worked and what bombed; and more importantly, why. This paper is the result of such a process of self-reflection. I have identified the following four key elements that guide my teaching:

Knowledge and Skills

Knowledge is, of course, a basic element that all teachers need to possess. I believe that every practitioner sees it as his/her primary responsibility to keep up with recent developments in his/her own field. And, students are certainly appreciative when they encounter a teacher who displays a strong and deep understanding of the subject taught. Student feedback that says "she really knows her stuff" never fails to take me by surprise. I find myself asking, "Did students not expect us to know our stuff?" I have, however, come to realise that perhaps what is at play here is not the implied message that there are lecturers who "don't know their stuff", but that there are lecturers who are not well-versed in transmitting the knowledge they have. In other words, their skill in presenting knowledge may be the underlying issue here. This is why I emphasise not just sound subject/content knowledge but also good teaching skills.

In my opinion, good teaching skills encompass, to a large extent, good communication skills. A good teacher is not only able to articulate, but is also adept at conveying ideas clearly. Clarity in classroom delivery should not be overlooked because the lack of it can undermine the best of intentions and hours of devoted class preparation. Good teachers are also usually good class managers in that they are often well-organised and able to provide a clear but flexible class structure that engages the class in lively, interactive exchange of ideas. In addition, students are also highly appreciative when teachers are able to use good illustrations and appropriate anecdotes to make the difficult seem easy to understand.

Student-centred Teaching Practices

I have found that a classroom culture which places students at the centre works best among all options. For example, instead of merely delivering lectures week after week, I relegate myself to the margins, allowing students to act as central resource persons who not only define the issues for discussion but also lead class discussions in specific weeks. At the very least, such a student-centred culture has been viewed by students to be 'refreshing' as they are used to being talked down to. More importantly, students say they appreciate the empowerment offered to them through such a student-centred teaching philosophy.

We often talk about university students as young adults, but I take this one step further by treating them as equals. Granted, I have had my share of encounters with immature students. Still, I believe in nurturing these young adults to take full responsibility for their own learning and development. And, the best way to do this seems to be through student-centred teaching practices such as student-led discussions, which overtly allow student voices to be heard. Student-led discussions assume that students are equipped to teach as much as they are placed in the classroom to learn. Put simply, the emphasis is on teacher-student and student-student collaboration-all of us teaching and learning from one another. The result of this is a mutually empowering teaching/ learning environment that actively narrows the power differential between me (the teacher) and the audience (students). My hope is that in promoting a less hierarchical and therefore more democratic classroom culture, I can inculcate a sense of responsibility and confidence, and nurture independence and critical reflection in the students under my care.

Interpersonal Skills

Teaching, as we all know, is a time and energy consuming activity. Though we may not often have the time to reflect about this, to risk stating the obvious, we deal with people and their feelings. If we think about teaching in these terms, it is easy to see why good interpersonal skills are so crucial. On top of imparting knowledge and inculcating good thinking habits, teachers also have to perform some amount of 'emotional labour'. So, other than keeping a room full of young adults actively engaged, we have to also maintain the emotional barometer in our class skilfully. To do this, we have to be caring towards our students and mindful of their welfare. A student who feels he/she is a valued member in the class is more likely to be a happy learner. In a university environment often characterised as alienating (because of its sheer size) and where students run the risk of getting lost in a sea of statistics, it is perfectly understandable that students appreciate teachers who are approachable, patient, empathetic and willing to listen. In exercising these positive skills, teachers play an important part in restoring the personal touch and reintroducing the human element in an alienating campus landscape.

Passion and Enthusiasm

The university, as an intensely competitive workplace that demands all staff to pursue excellence in teaching, research and service, has exerted tremendous pressure on us. These demands sometimes leave us with little energy. But as teachers, we do need to infuse our classroom with at least a moderate, if not high, energy level in order to stimulate student interest in the field(s) we teach. Such dedication and commitment are necessary since their absence will be easy to detect. Students know, and appreciate it when a teacher has done a good job. However, if a teacher brings only half or less of him/herself to the classroom, it becomes an uphill task to make a good case for why students should care about what we seek to teach. Thus, quite simply, no matter how exhausted we may be, passion and enthusiasm are key elements that contribute to success in teaching.

Final Remarks

Very often, after years of teaching, it is easy to lapse into a kind of routine where we let the details of each day take over, and forget that one of the primary reasons brought us to the university in the first place-our love of teaching. This risk of losing our focus is exactly why my student's gift of a Teacher's Day card that says "I teach to watch the lights come on" serves as such a timely reminder for me. In spite of the relentless drive towards excellence, I remind myself of the intangible rewards that come with educating young minds. So, every time I see that spark, I know I have done something right.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Teaching and Learning: The Journey of an Educator
   
"I teach to watch the lights come on": Reflections on Best Practices
   
Personal Touch of a Teacher in the Learning Expedition
   
Getting Students to Assess Each Other
   
My Teaching Philosophy and Approach