Blog The Teaching Equation

The Teaching Equation


Some context before we dive in.

I recently finished a two-part Advanced Teaching Seminar at Langara College.

This was a big picture workshop, not the typical “5 ways to make your slides more engaging” lecture I’d attended in the past. Each part was held at the end of consecutive semesters to give us time to process and apply the information in our own teachings.

The first part was held at the end of the Fall 2018 semester to discuss our teaching telos (purpose). I love teaching, I thought that was enough. Finding the answer to “Why I teach?” was an interesting exercise for me as I’d never really stopped to consider it before.  Personally, I teach because I want to improve upon the student experiences I’ve had.

Figuring out your teaching personality was equally important. Our instructor was a self-professed “navigator”. In his free time, he likes to get lost in the wilderness and then find his way out. He applies the same mentality to his classroom. The definition I landed upon for myself was that I’m an “insatiable fixer”. If you’ve ever spent any time with me, you probably had a nice NE moment reading that last sentence… as it is crushingly accurate. Once I see something wrong, I can’t help but try and fix it: signage, timelines, slogans, images, excel sheets, presentations. Usually at the expense of my sleep.

Then we moved onto goals. The instructor’s goal for their teaching career was to “retire proud”, my goal is to “stay relevant”. This is the fulcrum around which all your teaching can revolve. It’s really simple to make teaching decisions if you have one foundational question to answer. Mine is, “Does this keep me relevant?”.

A final idea that stood out to me is the idea that teaching is messy…

Since there was no wayward spaghetti sauce involved… I thought I was in a pretty clean profession. Before this seminar, I thought that over time your proficiency could only increase (the red line below) but in reality, a good teacher fails A LOT on the way to becoming better (the green line below). We try new assignment approaches, we test new technology, we use different explanations and visuals.

Some of them fail.

…I fail.

It can be messy…but it does trend upwards over time. In a decidely solo endeavor, that’s comforting to me.

Trajectory of a teacher
The trajectory of a teachers’ proficiency over time. Red = what people think. Green = how it actually is.

For the second part of the seminar, at the end of the Winter 2019 semester, we were asked to write a reflection on the knowledge we’d gleaned from the previous session. We shared those stories amongst the group and shared our reactions and takeaways.

ANYHOW, that’s enough of me waxing poetic, here is my story below…

The Teaching Equation

by Kurtis Stewart

Does camera = ? photo illustration

One hour of prep + one hour of teaching = Learning

…Or so I thought.

I love equations.

To me, equations are simple. You plug variables in and out comes a consistent result. I use equations for everything in my life; business, sports, and personal. It’s efficient, systematic, and clean­–like me.

I hate mess.

I seek order in everything I do. I was never the kid with spaghetti sauce all over his face; I made my bed every morning; I who didn’t dog-ear pages in any of my books; and had all the pieces to all of my LEGO sets. I used equations to help me keep things clean.

Unfortunately for me… teaching is messy.

When I starting my teaching career, I believed one hour of prep + one hour of teaching = Learning. I’d done my prep hour, taught the class, learning would be the unavoidable result. Right?

Equations make me feel smart. I don’t like looking stupid when other people are paying me to look smart. If I want to pursue a new role, I typically volunteer in that role first to get a handle on the “equation” before I jump in with both feet. After 4+ years as a TA—as close to volunteering as I could get—a teaching role was offered to me. Having collected all these teaching equations over the years, I felt “smart” enough to take it on.

Equations make me feel comfortable. I was delighted when I heard “A good teacher often doesn’t look that good”. That made me feel comfortable. For a long time, I’d been waiting to be deemed “good”, but it turned out I might be “good” already…

Equations make me feel supported.  I’ve heard people say, “teaching is a very lonely pursuit”. The truth is, I’m not alone. I can ask for help from my students. “I have no idea how to answer that, does anybody else know?” is a valid response. I don’t have to have all the answers, I just have to be willing to help find them. Students can be an active part of my equation.

Equations need to change and evolve. Starting from scratch obliterates all the work I’ve done. It makes me feel like I’m saying “WHOOPS, sorry, I was wrong”.  Instead, as an iterative creator, I constantly finesse my equations. I was surprised to hear Steve say, “I never rolled a course over, I always ordered a new shell”.

I’ve been so worried about the lecture slides + examples + assignments that I’m not focusing on the classroom environment. Steve mentioned that “I’m not a nice instructor but I’m a safe instructor”. I started my career being “nice” because I wanted to be liked. Nice instructor does not equal an effective instructor.

No matter how much a fussed with the equation, at the end of the day all I needed to know was…

Safe Environment = Learning

I’m really glad I took the course and am still excited about how it’s going to change my teaching in future semesters.

You can see more of my Teaching posts here. For more updates follow me on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

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