Thursday, May 7, 2009

The First Year

Finals are done, pinning is this afternoon, and commencement will be tomorrow. Thus ends my first year as a full-time faculty member in a small Midwestern nursing program. My goals for the year were to (1) be an effective teacher and (2) learn as much as possible about being an even more effective teacher next year. I believe these goals were accomplished. For the first, most of my students did well at clinical and on their final exams and gave positive feedback on their course evaluations. For the second, I learned a tremendous amount both about teaching and about myself. The first year has been a success.

What I learned this year:
1. I learned that not all students think like me – in fact my learning style is in the minority.
2. I began to learn how to find ways to make boring, fact-based lectures appeal to different learning styles.
3. I carefully studied the concepts of active learning and student engagement and implemented many ideas from various books on the subject.
4. I learned (from reading in a variety of sources) that students can handle no more than 20 minutes of standard lecture before they begin to lose focus and concentration. Fortunately, only a minute or two of active learning is needed to refresh concentration and restart the timer.
5. I learned, to my chagrin, that I have some of the classic traits of a new teacher. In the book “The Art of Lecture” the authors discuss the ways that inexperienced teachers “cover” discomfort when they are uncertain or uncomfortable with a given topic. Alas, I exhibit some of those traits. But I learned this, so now I am planning for improvement next year.
6. I learned the importance of excellent documentation and a clear paper trail – it’s not something that matters only in the nursing practice setting – clear and indisputable charting is every bit as important in the academic setting.
7. I learned that first impressions are not always accurate. Some of my favorite students are ones who I didn’t think I would really like at first, while others who looked like they would be excellent students turned out to have poor study habits and questionable character.
8. I learned that it is important to set the standard high and start out strict until the students have established acceptable patterns. The first semester I started out accepting excuses and letting students get away with being tardy, turning in late work, etc. It was my first week of teaching and I wanted them to like me and think I was nice, but it spiraled out of control in no time. The “fairness doctrine” kicked in and I didn’t feel I could ding one student for late work when I had accepted it from another. At the start of the second semester I accepted no excuses and heavily marked up the initial rounds of written work. After about 2-3 weeks, the students were no longer asking me to accept late work without penalty, and were actually turning in decent quality written work. Then as the semester progressed, I was able to make exceptions where reasonable and be a little more lenient, and have the students appreciate my leniency instead of having them expect me to let them get away with academic murder.

I’m sure I’ve learned more than these eight things, but these are things that really stand out from this year. It’s been a wonderful year and I have had some wonderful students and wonderful fellow faculty!

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