Over time, you’ll get better as a teacher. Part of this will happen automatically as your brain automates the common tasks you engage in, leaving more working memory to handle the unusual parts of the job. But part of it will come because of your actively looking for ways to improve.

You are likely aware of some areas where you could improve, but often what we perceive as our own strengths and weaknesses are not in fact the most fruitful areas for personal growth. This write-up lists three sources of additional ideas for how to improve

1 View others teaching

A great source of inspiration on how to improve as a teacher is observing other teachers. Shadowing other TAs, observing how your own instructors and TAs interact with you, noticing informal teaching like how people give directions or describe their day: all can be valuable sources of inspiration.

When viewing other teaching, I recommend asking three questions about each:

  1. Why?

    Why did they explain it that way? Why did they show that picture? Why did they pause for that long? Why did they tell that joke then?

    You can learn a lot about teaching by pondering why teachers act the way they do. This is true both of good and bad instruction; why did they decide to do that thing I think they shouldn’t have done is a fruitful way of learning about your own foibles.

  2. Who?

    Who is that good for? Who is it bad for?

    While some teaching is simply good or bad, more often it’s good or bad for one group of students and the opposite for another group. You can learn more about teaching and students by pondering how pedagogy and students match than by pondering pedagogy by itself.

  3. How?

    How can I do something like this?

    Not all pedagogues transfer directly into your context. Maybe it’s a teaching strategy for a classroom when you teach one-on-one. Maybe it’s not something that meshes naturally with your teacher persona. Maybe it’s customized to a topic different than what you teach. But even if it’s all of these, it is still likely you can imagine how to adjust it to work in your context.

    That process of re-imagining a teaching strategy in a new context is useful both because it gives you more concrete ideas to move forward with and also because the process of doing the re-imagining helps your brain develop more robust and versatile teaching schemata.

2 Review your own teaching

You can learn a lot by reviewing your own teaching.

One of the most fruitful ways to do this is to record yourself teaching and then watch or listen to the recordings. You do need to be careful not to violate any expectations of student privacy in doing this; Virginia has very liberal audio recording laws, but UVA has more strict rules and video recordings have their own complexities. You may not require students to agree to being recorded, but if they do then reviewing that recording can result in many insights into things you didn’t notice you were doing (or not doing) in the moment.

You can also record yourself in a role-play environment, asking a friend or fellow TA to pretend to be a student for the purpose of your recording your teaching. While role-play teaching is not as true to life as real teaching, it’s much easier to get permission to record and easier to hone in on particular kinds of problems.

Additionally, you can reflect, thinking back on how things went, what you did and didn’t do, and so on without a recording. Because your brain was busy while teaching it is likely that you’ll fail to remember many details, but you can still gain a lot by consciously pausing to reflect, especially if you do so immediately after teaching.

In all your reviewing, I recommend two tips:

  1. Look for patterns. Are you saying something you just said? Is there a grimace each student makes when you do something? Etc.

  2. Use a rubric, ticking off instances of something. We all tend to use mental shortcuts and not even notice we are doing so, so it can help to pick a few practices and count actual occurances. How often do you ask a question, then answer it before the student can reply? How often do you reach for the student’s keyboard? How often do you do each of the other good and bad practices we’ve discussed in this course or that you’ve identified by viewing other teachers?

3 Seek feedback on your teaching

Viewing others teaching and reviewing your own can be useful tools, but you may be surprised what others see in your teaching that you simply can’t see. For this reason, it is wise to seek out feedback.

Feedback from students can be very useful, but comes with some caveats. Students are generally cognitively engaged without much working memory to devote to metacognating on how you are as a teacher. Because of that, you may benefit in timing your request for feedback to occur when the student has enough working memory to devote to a thoughtful answer. Additionally, as noted a few weeks ago, not all students have the same goal as teachers so you may need to re-pose their feedback in the context of your goals. However, even with these caveats students can be one of your best sources of feedback.

You can also ask for feedback from other TAs, faculty, or other educators. This will require them to observe your interactions, but they’ll often welcome the chance to view you teaching if invited. Observing educators have spare cognitive load to consider aspects of yours that you are too busy doing to notice; have experience teaching to help them articulate what they saw and what you can learn from it; and have distinct experiences than you, often leading to insights you don’t have.

In addition to those formal sources of feedback, you can also get lightning feedback through how students react. When you ask a question, show a picture, or otherwise provide input to a student it can be fruitful to consciously predict what the student will do in response. If that prediction is inaccurate, you have a little piece of feedback. Interpreting that feedback can be tricky: did you miss-read the student’s previous state, or not explain as well as you thought, or impose your cultural expectations on them or …? However, the fact that you can get this feedback so easily and often can still make it a very valuable part of learning to teach.

4 So much to do…

As you use the above strategies, as well as others you might know or discover, you’ll likely end up with far more ideas than you can implement. Picking what to do next is one subject of out next write-up.