What Your Stories Say About Your Teaching

Author: 
Stephanie Fiore, Senior Director, CAT

When I talk about my teaching, there are certain stories that I like to tell. One of my favorites is the story of two of my male students in Italian III who decided for their presentation to demonstrate how to make homemade pasta and sauce (with instructions narrated completely in Italian, of course) and then serve the completed dish to the class. By the time we had finished eating, they had received at least three offers of marriage from the women in the room. I also tell the story of the student in my Readings in Italian class who read 700+ page Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in Italian for her required free-reading when she could have chosen shorter, less complicated books. I would see her at all hours of the day with her nose in that book, just drinking in the sense of accomplishment she gained from reading it. On the other hand, I tell the story of the student who, after completing the written draft for his oral presentation, announced to me matter-of-factly that he would not be doing the actual presentation. He had done the math and figured out that he didn’t have to complete this assignment in order to pass. I was taken aback by his hubris, and his actions made me change my course policies to prevent this kind of shenanigans in the future.

When it comes to teaching, many of us are storytellers, weaving narratives of shocking or amusing or satisfying anecdotes from our lives as teachers. Because our work deals so intimately with students, we have a wealth of stories to tell. In my role at the Center for the Advancement of Teaching, I hear enlightening and inspirational stories from faculty, as well as stories of frustrating and disappointing moments. In Linda K. Shadiow’s engaging book,
What Our Stories Teach Us: A Guide to Critical Reflection for College Faculty, the author points out that these stories can be useful as reflective guides for our teaching selves. They are more than sentimental musings, and are instead integral to the lived process of creating a professional life. Says Shadiow: “I have learned that the process of recalling, retelling, scrutinizing, and analyzing these stories sheds new light on my teaching.” This idea of reflecting on our teaching as a way towards continual improvement and refinement of our craft is not a new one. But Shadiow’s three-step process for using our stories as a launching pad for reflection on our teaching is an intriguing way in.

Stage One involves gathering the stories we tell about ourselves and our experiences as teachers and then highlighting those which tug at us emotionally - what Shadiow calls “critical incidents.” Did these critical incidents rise to the top because they were unexpected moments? Exhilarating? Frustrating? Unsettling? Satisfying? Stage Two invites the teacher to consider these critical incidents in unexpected ways, positioning them so that you can view them from the four vantage points of teacher, learner, content, and context. By examining them in new ways, our perspectives are broadened, themes may emerge and assumptions may become visible.  Stage Three asks us to examine these stories in light of the assumptions we bring to them. What expectations, values, and beliefs infuse your teaching and contribute to those moments of surprise, disappointment, exhilaration and satisfaction that are your critical incidents?

In reflecting in this way on my stories mentioned above, I realize that what the first two stories reflect is my belief that providing some freedom of choice to students can result in surprising moments of motivation and engagement. In both cases, students were motivated to go above and beyond the assignment, and the reaction of others (and of myself) was to revel in those moments of joy. The third incident, conversely, was one of frustration and puzzlement. Why did my assumptions about what it takes to motivate students have no effect on this student? Providing choice to students cannot mean a choice to do nothing, to take no risks, to choose not to learn. More than an indictment of this student’s willingness to take shortcuts, the story expresses my sense of failure as acknowledgment that my quest to encourage deep student involvement is clearly not yet perfected. What that leads to is a useful question: What can I do differently to motivate students like him to want to participate? Reflecting on this question may lead to teaching solutions that were not available to me before.

As the semester winds down, I invite you to start collecting your stories so that you can use the summer to turn them over, examine them, and begin the process towards finding useful teaching solutions. As you reflect, remember that the Temple Center for the Advancement of Teaching staff is here all summer and available for consultations. If you are a faculty member at another institution, check to see if there is a center dedicated to faculty development that can support you as you think about your teaching. From our staff to you, may the summer be restful, productive and full of rich moments of reflection and discovery.

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What stories do you tell? What do you think they say about your teaching?

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