Daily Pennsylvanian article on teacher training and support points to Critical Writing Program

In classroom, profs learn by observation

The Daily Pennsylvanian
November 18, 2008

When Biology professor Paul Sniegowski came to Penn in 1997, he had little lecture experience under his belt.

So he learned to teach the way many faculty members do: from each other. The process takes place through observations and discussions, in both formal programs and informal conversations.

Sneigowski's apprenticeship came largely from co-teaching two very different courses - a large introductory class and a small advanced lecture - with seasoned faculty, which gave him a valuable and personalized introduction to teaching.

"Someone may tell you that appropriate lecture pace, rapport with students, good organization and so on are key aspects of successful teaching … but the truth really hits home when you watch a good teacher at work," he wrote of his experience in February's Almanac.

The Center for Teaching and Learning offers two types of faculty observation programs. In one, CTL staff provide feedback and the other, now in its second semester, pairs up faculty interested in enhancing their teaching methods and learning new approaches, director Bruce Lenthall said.

Philosophy professor Susan Meyer observed Criminology professor John MacDonald's lecture on the American penal system while he joined her seminar on Plato. They also met to discuss teaching over lunch a few times.

"It is quite useful to find out what people do in other disciplines," Meyer said.

Rather than take away specific techniques to try, she gained general insight on delivering material and keeping the classroom engaged.

Meyer added that most observation comes in the form of evaluations of junior faculty, which creates anxiety about the "gorilla in the corner." But this type of experience is stress-free and more conducive to mentoring.

The Critical Writing Program's repertoire of faculty support includes formal mentorships for new teachers, "Friday at noon" drop-in discussions and collective portfolio assessments.

Director Valerie Ross said the programs build community around teaching, which rarely gains the visibility of scholarship. "The great thing about mentoring and training is to make the work of teaching more communal and collaborative and less of an isolated space," she said.

The programs also help participants prepare for some big challenges new teachers face, like balancing workload, catering to a class' personality and responding to assignments.

"In the old days, you were just plopped in a classroom and did what the people before you did," Ross said. "It's nice to have a lot more training."

South Asia Studies professor Deven Patel, who joined Penn last year after teaching at a few other schools, said he "learned to teach the way people learn in many fields, which is basically watching."

Lenthall said faculty observation is just one of the ways professors learn. CTL offers other training and many individual departments provide mentoring programs as well.

"It isn't just something struggling faculty do," he said. "Excellent teachers also think a lot about their teaching. What makes them excellent is that they're thinking about it."

Lenthall added that observation is an effective way to address challenges new teachers face, from cultivating an identity as a lecturer to balancing instruction with research.

"It's easy to think there is one way you're supposed to do it," he said. "If you see people teaching in ways that defy what you expect, it opens your eyes to new possibilities."