The teacher becomes the student

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Once, I was a middle school science teacher with Teach For America. Now, having returned to school as a graduate student, I find myself on the other side of the classroom but with a new and unshakable perspective.

Like Eve becoming embarrassed by her own nakedness after eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, I am now keenly aware of my new instructors’ strengths and shortcomings.

While I have already delighted in exemplary instruction here at UT, I have also been disappointed by the familiar hallmarks of bad teaching so often present in my own classroom.

Sitting in a crowded lecture hall on the first day of class, I was surprised to find that the least punctual member of class was the professor. After starting class nearly 10 minutes late, he hurried through his syllabus presentation and unceremoniously dismissed us one hour early.

In another class, the professor was only slightly more engaging than the chair I was sitting in. His deadpan delivery of “I’m so excited” that sent the class into stifled snickers was rivaled only by multiple reminders of the fact that nobody ever seems to like his class. We probably won’t either, he says. Such an endorsement of an advertising class gave new meaning to the term “hard sell.”

Most distressing, however, was the amount of time my teachers ceded to early dismissal on the first day. Of my first week’s 270 minutes of sanctioned class time, my teachers used only 135 — exactly half. Shouldn’t professors take advantage of every possible minute allocated for instruction?

Either way, I’m paying for it, and for a non-resident graduate student like myself, every minute of class costs about $1. In other words, somebody owes me $135.

Why is such poor instruction routine? I think the answer lies in the University’s emphasis on research to the detriment of teaching.

UT ranks 18th on the Center for Measuring University Performance’s most recent rankings of the Top American Research Universities. Institutional wealth, of which the research dollar is key, is a primary indicator of university quality, according to a study by Arizona State University.

Clearly research is a priority at the University. In 2007, UT brought in more than $446 million for research, which has steadily risen to $510 million.

But research and teaching shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Four schools rank in both the top 10 on the center’s list as well as on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of Best Undergraduate Teaching Colleges. They are Stanford, Yale, Berkeley and Michigan. Where’s UT on that teaching list? Not ranked.

Does this mean UT should neglect research? No, of course not. But teaching has to become at least equally important. That accountability starts from the top with the hiring, training and retaining of excellent teachers, not just researchers.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on my teachers. After all, it was just the first week. But as a former teacher myself, I fear where this is headed.