How Do Professors Learn to Teach (or Do They)?

Most professors’ roads to the front of the classroom are equivalent to playing nothing but football in college and then walking directly onto the professional tennis tour. That is, doctoral students prepare to be top-notch academic researchers, and then a good portion of them spend their careers in instructional positions.  Unfortunately (for the professors and their students), success in those two roles is mutually exclusive.

Students are usually unaware that college professors are not trained teachers. Ironically, while students think that “all profs do is teach,” teaching is where professors receive the least training, if any at all.

Reading Jeff Anderson’s book The Skinny on Teaching: What You Don’t Learn in Graduate School led me to reflect on how unprepared I was to teach at the start of my career.  Comprehending Dr. Anderson’s essay-style discussions on areas of teaching—from his discussion of effective lecturing to his advocacy of primary source material—is worthwhile for those who are serious about being stars in the classroom. Anderson touches on important aspects of teaching that young professors are unlikely to consider otherwise.

In my case, the only thing that came close to formal teaching instruction was receiving senior faculty “hand-me-downs”—PowerPoint slides and syllabi, along with a good-luck pat on the back. That was as useful as walking into class wearing another person’s expensive custom-made suit and thinking that I looked good. (Jenna Ashley Robinson tells a similar story when she started teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill while still a graduate student.)

In speaking with colleagues, I found that their road to the front of the classroom was not much different from mine. Some were required to attend a going-through-the-motions seminar as part of their Ph.D. programs. Others were told not to spend much time on their teaching because that could get in the way of their research programs; in other words, “don’t stink up the place and you’ll be fine.” 

Hence, students or their parents fork over a hefty chunk of change to be educated by people who are not trained and often unmotivated to teach. I wonder how many future professors who were told to “satisfice” (a term coined by Herbert Simon to suggest achieving low-level satisfaction) in their teaching are now teaching classes in ethics.  Actually, I’d rather not think about that question.

For people who want to excel, there is no magic formula for success in the classroom. As Anderson implies in his book, good teaching is an art, not a science. Teaching well just requires some elbow grease.

As I have progressed in my career, I’ve determined that teaching success relies on self-exploration of what I call the Three S’s—Stuff, Students, and Self.

Stuff: If new teachers want to do well, they must know their stuff. No one teaches well by learning class material a few hours before the students enter class. Unfortunately, that just-in-time prep happens more often than many would admit.

Doctoral education is often focused on highly specialized theory, but such theory is unrelated to the undergraduate classes. Non-Ph.D courses do not involve running structural equation models to test for antecedents of occupational commitment. Therefore, as opposed to a U.S. history professor having read every piece of correspondence written by George Washington, there is a good chance an overpriced and useless course textbook is the limit of a professor’s knowledge. Instead of creating intellectually curious students, this pedagogy creates lazy students who think the course is easy because they can skip class and read the textbook.

As obvious as this sounds, students must regard the professor as the expert. Professors must be well read in order to choose readings that complement the classroom experience rather than substituting for it. Students need to see the professors as bridges between their readings and their understanding of course material (à la Hillsdale College’s Constitution 101). 

But good teaching does not stop there. Professors in quantitative disciplines are likely to be experts in the basics of their disciplines, but that expertise does not always translate into the ability to transmit that knowledge to others. Professors must know their students. I’m not referring to knowing that millennials are tech-savvy young people who want flexible work arrangements. I mean knowing the members of the class individually. Any athletes in the room? Anyone have a pet fish? What other courses are they taking? That seemingly trivial information is valuable for connecting with students as real people; don’t worry, they don’t bite.

Students: Telling isn’t teaching.  One sign that a teacher does not know his students well is when he is more apt to say “I teach my students” versus “My students learn to….” Having that personal connection with students helps professors see if they are getting through to those students. While that notion seems like common sense, it is not always common practice. 

Self: Connecting with students is also complicated because the academic career attracts introverts who have to battle their natures in order to connect with a room full of people. New teachers need self-awareness because the “all eyes on you” nature of the classroom will force that awareness out anyway.  Introverts can be great teachers, but they shouldn’t try to be motivational speaker Tony Robbins. On the flip side, natural teachers can stifle their own enthusiasm by imprisoning themselves in an abundance of PowerPoint slides. Just because “everyone else does it” is not a good reason to adopt that lazy practice.

Simply using hand-me-down slides and syllabi is poor technique. Such professors are bowling with someone else’s bowling ball. Professors should prepare their own course material. Doing so is good for them, and for their students.

Nothing that I have written here is revolutionary, but so what?  Not enough professors know their Three S’s, and that affects the students who take their classes. Bad classes instill poor habits—like intellectual apathy and subpar writing skills—that others will have to undo later.

Much like management or entrepreneurship, teaching is a skill that requires experience and reflection in order to improve. Like a stud college quarterback being drafted to the NFL, one discovers that the game is a lot faster than one initially anticipates. College teaching has a steep learning curve and there are no shortcuts.