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ISCL workshop focuses on teachers’ strengths
February 7, 2012Tweet
“Thank you for this institute. That it exists makes me even happier to be here,” said President Harvey Stenger, at the Institute for Student Centered Learning (ISCL) workshop on Jan. 24. “When I was asked to come talk at this workshop, my head exploded with all that I could talk about with respect to teaching,” he added. “I love to teach. Teaching is about how you connect with students, how you get students to look at you as a mentor and not just a source of information.”
Held the afternoon of the University Forum, “Using Your Strengths to Enhance Student Learning” put the focus on the individual teacher, rather than the tools a teacher uses.
“We’re part of the equation, too,” said Wayne Jones, professor of chemistry and chair of the ISCL Committee, in his welcoming remarks. “We can raise teaching to the next level, not by focusing on our weaknesses, but by focusing on our strengths. What are those things that make you who you are, and how can you take advantage of them to make you the best teacher possible?”
The workshop was based on the Reflected Best Self Exercise™ that enables people to identify their unique strengths and talents by requesting positive feedback from significant people in their lives. That feedback is then synthesized into a cumulative portrait of the person’s “best self” so they can better understand when they are at their best.
Participants started by writing down what they believed to be their strengths, and then Kim Jaussi, associate professor of management, asked them to think about what you were in those moments. “What were you doing? How were you? Were you inspirational, quiet, creative, organized, imaginative, passionate, loving, empathetic, energetic, analytical?” she asked. “Going back to those moments can help you think about that question.”
Participants pictured how they would use their strengths to become better instructors. Admitting he doesn’t like talking about his strengths, Stenger said he believes he’s a good listener, and Jaussi asked him the basic question of the day: “What does that look like? What do you do in a classroom to show that?”
“I look the person in the eye,” he said. “I keep listening until they’re done talking, and I think there’s a physical connection as well to the person you’re talking to. I lean in. That’s really powerful. I’ve had to learn it, but with practice it becomes natural.”
Stenger said he was trustworthy, as well. When Jaussi asked “what does that look like?” he said a teacher builds trust “by making promises to follow through on,” but also by admitting mistakes. “Disclosure,” he said. “I always showed the bad evaluations to my students and where I was going to improve.”
As the afternoon progressed, Jaussi had participants focus on their passions and their strengths. “When you can focus on positive things and your strengths,” she said, “research has shown you will have enhanced performance. Do everything to your strengths. Bring your whole self to work to be most effective.”
Five experienced faculty, who had completed the full RBS survey, described that what they learned from the experience. “It’s challenging to complete the exercise,” said Dora Polachek, visiting associate professor of romance languages and literatures. “It’s not that easy to think of all your students, family, friends and colleagues and get them to talk about you when you’re at your best.”
Polachek’s RBS feedback said she is caring, and she brings that into the classroom by asking students to prepare their own discussion questions to “level the playing field” so everybody starts equally. She also gives “very realistic time parameters” for assignments and the opportunity for students to hand in preliminary work for review. “I like to connect with them, but the most lasting connection is between them and other students, so I run the French table once a week,” where people converse in French. “It’s a wonderful way to detox from everything and get to know others.”
Ann Merriweather, lecturer in psychology, learned that she is brave and non-judgmental. For her, that means not caving into students who think they should get a better grade, but also not judging them for doing poorly or asking for help. “Learning that I’m brave makes me feel braver,” she said, “and that I can be non-judgmental is even better.”
“I learned I’m at my best when I’m vulnerable, down-to-earth and real,” said Chris Reiber, associate professor of anthropology. “I take it into my class (biomedical anthropology) by talking about evolutionary models of animal behavior that lead to things like child abuse and infanticide,” she said. “I say ‘OK, why do we care about this? Because, statistically, a bunch of you guys are going to get divorced.’”
Reiber talks to them about her own life in general terms. “I put that right on the table,” she said. “When we talk about some of those issues, I expose some of my personal life to them so they can go away and connect their own personal experiences. I routinely get back from them really positive feedback.”
Jones, a good consensus builder, found he could also build consensus with students. “I use clickers in the big classes. One class stands out in my mind. I was ready to go in and give a great lecture using PowerPoint, but my first question was a clicker question. I asked the question and most of the class got it wrong. So we dug into the wrong answers, then took some time and asked the question again and over the course of 40 minutes, we got to the right answer. I realized that I was letting the class reach consensus.”
Al Vos, associate professor of English, looks at the whole person. He related a story about an instructor who will never accept a late paper. “I certainly want to make students accountable, but life has a way of intervening and you shouldn’t box yourself in and be so rigid,” he said. A faculty master, Vos said students’ lives outside the classroom are important to him “so I put myself in a position where I think about that and their informal learning as well as formal learning. Finding ways to tap into that it will enrich your lives and benefit them as well.”
The final exercise of the workshop had participants quickly write tactics for 12 common descriptors, including empathetic, connected, flexible, risk taker. Again, Jaussi asked, what would each descriptor look like in the classroom? What tactics would instructors use to demonstrate the descriptors? Participants chose their favorite descriptor and tactic and talked about how they would incorporate it into their teaching.
Health and wellness studies lecturer Sarah Thompson loved the idea about connecting the community and one’s syllabus. “In my context, I’ve done something similar, encouraging students to be involved in farm markets, having them be aware of where their food is coming from. I tell them where they are and often offer extra credit for attending.” She’s now considering doing it as an assignment.
Mark Reisinger chose empathy. “I offer bonus points to come to my office hours for five minutes and talk about anything you want to talk about,” he said. “I learn a lot about their lives. One young lady stayed in my office for an hour and a half and talked about her serious roommate problems and I was able to guide her to get help.”
Angelique Jenks-Brown, associate librarian, said her group was struggling with passion. “How do you show passion to students?” she asked. “We chose our fields and in many cases these students didn’t. We need to emphasize the motivational factors that meet their needs and focus on them, moving from passion to motivation.”
The reporting out achieved a workshop goal: At the end of the day, participants walked away with 3-5 things they could implement in their classrooms right away.
Workshop organizers made the RBS exercise available to participants if they want to do the full survey to learn what others perceive their strengths are, and to use the feedback to enhance their teaching.
“It’s so hard to be a great teacher,” Stenger said. “I hope to be a regular attendee at these workshops.”