college of education | fall 2005
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THE COLLEGE OF EDUCATION PLACES TEACHING FRONT AND CENTER WITH FIRST GROUP OF FACULTY, GRADUATES STUDENT RECIPIENTS OF EXCELLENCE IN TEACHING AWARDS
It would be easy if in recognizing and
honoring excellence in the classroom we could boil down teaching to the
age-old standby of the lecture. As such, all we would have to do is listen
to the lecture and determine whether it was well organized, coherent, and
accurate. We might even look to evaluate whether the educator presented the
information in an engaging or illuminating fashion, and to what degree the
material reflected the latest knowledge on the subject.
The trouble, of course, is that lecturing is not a synonym for teaching. In some cases, lecturing may not even be the desired or most effective approach. So given the complexity of teaching and the seemingly endless variables involved, can we truly identify outstanding teachers in any kind of systematic way?
For Dean Carole Ames, the answer to that question is a resounding yes, and she set the College of Education on a path to do that by establishing the Excellence in Teaching Awards in the fall to recognize superb educators on the faculty and among the college’s graduate teaching assistants.
In one sense, it was for her a statement about the importance that teaching plays in the tripartite mission of the college. Along with research and service to the field, teaching matters at the college and excellence in the postsecondary classroom is worthy of recognition. Yet it was also a desire to engage the college in a thoughtful process of understanding and identifying outstanding achievement in the teaching ranks and making that excellence transparent to an organization, especially one charged with preparing k–12 teachers.
“When we talk about excellence in teaching, it’s often been defined in higher education as student evaluations of instruction at the end of a course,” Ames said. “That isn’t sufficient in any sense of the word. It doesn’t capture the entire picture.
“The Excellence in Teaching Awards are a
beginning in terms of how we might make teaching more public and define it
within the rubric of scholarly teaching and learning. It’s an effort to
define what we mean by high-quality teaching, and make that excellence
That was difficult enough. But teaching—and excellent teaching, to be sure—has many dimensions. There is all of the planning that goes on before any teaching even takes place. And how does one consider or evaluate the interaction with students online or in person? Should changes a professor or teaching assistant makes to course content be part of the evaluation? What about external forces such as changes in the academic program or the culture of a specific department? All of these issues can have profound effects on the actual teaching that goes on, but they can be hard to ascertain and factor in the process of assessing excellence, Wilson said.
For that reason, it was a harder and more elusive task than it might have seemed initially. Evaluating a teacher’s practice is tricky business. On the one hand, a great syllabus doesn’t mean that the teacher who wrote it is a great educator. On the other hand, if a teacher is articulate, eloquent, and dynamic in the classroom, it doesn’t necessarily follow that students learned anything. “It was very hard to try to figure out how to take these artifacts and use them to construct a case that persuaded all of us that someone was a good teacher,” Wilson said.
The committee was able to draw on a number of artifacts. The portfolios included such things as videotapes of the faculty members and doctoral student teaching, pictures, syllabi, narratives written by the educators, and examples of student work. In addition, the committee interviewed the candidates and that opportunity was for Professor Bob Floden, who served on the committee, invaluable.
Floden said that in evaluating teaching at any level, context can and often is everything. It is hard to evaluate a snippet of teaching without knowing what has come before and where the teacher is going. The ability to question a candidate was helpful in understanding what a faculty member or doctoral student was thinking and what they were trying to accomplish, he said.
For example, one graduate student submitted posters that students had done based on what they had learned in class. It was difficult, Floden said, to discern whether they reflected effective teaching or learning. However, when the committee met with the nominee, the student was able to explain the connections his students had made and why the posters demonstrated important learning. “Without his interpretation,” Floden said, “it doesn’t show us very much.”
Even after the committee met with all the teachers and analyzed the materials in the portfolios, the process was challenging. The committee ultimately chose to factor such things as the nature of the various academic programs and departments in which professors and graduate students taught, as well as the varying levels of experience. The Department of Educational Administration includes only graduate programs, for example, while the Department of Teacher Education enrolls a large number of undergraduates. The committee decided that the contexts for teaching in each department are different, requiring different emphases from professors and teaching assistant.
It was for Wilson and the other members of the
committee a remarkable process that yielded fascinating and thoughtful
discussion—and, at times, debate—about the nature of great teaching. For
more than a few on the committee, those discussions were among the best they
had ever had on teaching. In the end, there emerged a consensus around the
four professors and the three graduate students.
Likewise, among the professors, Rosaen has the longest tenure having been a member of the faculty in the Department of Teacher Education since 1987. In contrast, Renn joined the Department of Educational Administration in 2001, after having served in administrative roles in higher education. Schwarz, too, joined the college in 2001 as an assistant professor of teacher education. Smith, meanwhile, has been a member of the faculty in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education for 14 years.
What unifies all of them is demonstrable excellence as teachers. Members of the committee pointed out that all of the seven honorees were able to provide evidence that their students were learning in their classrooms. In addition, the honorees were excellent archivists of their teaching, often documenting their work in creative ways. Pizzolato, for example, submitted an annotated syllabus in which she explained the decisions she made in structuring her course. [See sidebar articles on the following pages for a detailed description of each of the award recipients.]
And, finally, all of them had a firm
theoretical foundation for their teaching. “In writing or in conversation
about their teaching, all seven had some way of theorizing about their
practice and explaining the design of their courses and their behaviors as
teachers based on theory about how students learn. Their teaching was
conceptually grounded and coherent,” Wilson said.
For Dean Ames, the awards will pay dividends for the college in various ways. Already, the honoring of the first group of faculty and graduate students has brought attention to the teaching that goes on in the college. That, she said, can only be a good thing. By being thoughtful and reflective of one’s teaching and to do so in a public way, faculty members in the college will be able to model those very skills more effectively to the next generation of teachers and scholars.
Members of the selection committee agree that
the awards will have positive effect. It will always likely be a challenge
to make excellence in teaching visible, especially in higher education. It
is in the nature of the field to publish one’s work and rely on that
approach to making teaching visible. “But there are other things that people
can do to make visible the quality of their teaching,” Floden said. “This
awards program is a way of trying to give examples of that as well as
rewarding people who do excellent work.”
Especially impressive to the committee was Kristin’s commitment to a holistic conception of graduate education, one that extends beyond the boundaries of articles and books read or papers written. Kristin thinks, too, about the professional habits, commitments, and knowledge that her students will need—whether they are becoming resident advisors, university administrators, teachers, or researchers. She creates a community that transcends the boundaries of her classrooms, one that encourages her students to learn with and from one another. Her use of technology in teaching has played an important role in this community building. Kristin uses technology in innovative and thoughtful ways, allowing students new spaces in which to deliberate and reflect as a community of learners and teachers. Throughout her work, Kristen has shown a consistent commitment to learning from her own practice.
Cheryl’s creation of the IVAN teaching cases, and her systematic inquiry into their potential to promote novices’ knowledge of classroom life, evidence her enduring commitment to her students’ learning, to the use of innovative technologies, and to the use of student input to inform her own teaching. Cheryl enacts the theorized practice, inquiring stance, and flexible thinking that she aims to instill in her students. She has remained open to a range of questions in her teaching and she has developed a scholarship on her teaching around a number of issues, including the use of technology in teacher education, the integration of math and literacy in elementary teacher preparation, and the preparation of teachers for racially and ethnically diverse classrooms. Her inquiry into these issues has not only enriched her own teaching, but has also advanced the field of teacher education more generally.
Jack extends this
work into his more formal classes. He artfully sequences content so that
students are supported in learning critical reading and writing skills, as
well as acquiring the tools they need for analyzing others’—and their
own—work. Jack has a strong vision of the multiple skills and experiences
necessary for students to develop as teachers and scholars, and he is
committed to students’ holistic growth. He has worked to create a range of
practices and structures that support that development, and he uses theory
to inform his thinking about when and what doctoral students can and do
learn from this range of experiences.
Especially impressive in Jane’s work is her commitment to helping students learn to write in scholarly, professional, and effective ways. Her goal is to help them move from being students who experience education to become teachers who observe and investigate education. She works to help her students use evidence effectively to advance their theoretical and practical work, meeting with them individually and in groups, providing extensive written feedback, and carefully structuring assignments to support their development as writers. She crafted these assignments over time, by critically evaluating her own failures and successes as a teacher, by eliciting information from her students about what was working and what was not, and by revising assignments while a course was unfolding. Jane has demonstrated to her colleagues and the committee her commitment to being an innovative and enthusiastic teacher, with high standards for her students and a deep respect for them as learners.
In addition, John created an online forum in which new teachers could share stories, swap helpful hints, and find just-in-time help. Throughout this careful teaching work, John has also collected data on his students’ learning and experience, and has initiated a line of his own scholarship concerning learning to teach and the role of teacher education in launching new teachers who are committed to and prepared for the hard work of creating intellectually challenging, personally respectful classrooms in which all children learn. Early in his career as a teacher educator, John has made huge strides in creating curricula and a community that supports new teachers in the early stages of their development while also challenging them to keep growing.
Drawing on a wide array
of pedagogical tools, Craig has students work in the field and then step
back and look critically at what they learned. He has students interview
potential clients; he presents relevant mini-lectures; he uses problem-based
learning to present them with meaningful, provocative problems of practice.
Throughout, Craig balances the need to make students feel that the work they
are doing is personally relevant and meaningful, while also challenging them
to think harder and write better about what they know. Through his work on
this class, Craig has demonstrated his commitment to pushing students to new
levels, to constantly searching out new ideas to enhance his teaching, and
to create classes that are practically relevant and idea-rich.
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