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Collaboration vs. solitude in teaching

Professor pointing to blackboard in front of students Photo courtesy of Tulane Public Relations

When you imagine a classroom, you probably think of a single instructor with many students. Sometimes there are separate TAs, but they rarely teach the full class; instead, the classroom has a single leader. This solitary teacher is at least partially a myth, as faculty do meet to discuss classroom challenges. And a number of articles have come out recently stressing the importance of a collaborative teaching environment.

One major issue that we’ve heard a lot about recently is the teacher shortage, especially of STEM teachers. A recent study reveals that this “shortage” is in some ways a myth. The problem isn’t that no one is interested in becoming teachers. The problem is that although many become teachers briefly, even more drop out. This retention problem leads to a regular supply of young teachers, but a decreasing proportion of more experienced teachers. Since studies have also shown that it takes some time to become skilled in the classroom, the loss of these experienced teachers is damaging.

This need is felt at the postsecondary level as well, since most graduate students do often not receive pedagogical training. Because the most likely people to be in front of introductory or remedial classrooms are graduate students or adjuncts (who often receive no professional development, the lack of training can increase the chances that underprepared students will not return to college.

As the first cited study indicates, collaboration and mentoring can help retain more experienced educators. British studies suggest that cutting down on busywork — defined as “unproductive work that does nothing to improve their teaching or advance pupils’ learning” — can also improve morale. This is likely true at the postsecondary level as well. In the US, rising demands for data and increasingly stringent accreditation standards are cited as drivers of tuition increase and corresponding decreases in permanent faculty hiring. To be fair, this is also unpleasant for administrators with a limited budget and outdated technology. Is a sea change likely to occur? Probably not. Trends are increasingly data-driven and expensive. While data in the classroom is probably effective, its large-scale effects are less clear. And they come at great cost. The Obama college-rating program won’t be cheap and will go forward without Congressional approval. Similar concerns have been raised in Canada over prioritization. But there are also positive steps forward, like programs to improve instructor training and recruit promising teachers. We may see instructors at all levels becoming more empowered by training, mentorship, and support, but that reform is likely to be incremental rather than earth-shattering. And this may be a good thing.

About the Author: Jaclyn Neel is a visiting Assistant Professor in Ancient History at York University in Toronto, Ontario.

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