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Day of Teaching: Promoting Authentic Professional Development & Student Success

By Annette Finley-Croswhite and Tomeka Wilcher

We invite you to attend the Day of Teaching on Sept. 17, and we thank the many presenters who have helped to generate a full schedule of intriguing topics. At the heart of this effort are professional development and student success.

From Annette Finley-Croswhite: Authentic professional development is often discussed at pedagogical institutes and seminars. But what is it? We can conceptualize authentic development as continual professional growth in our personal role as teachers. Interestingly enough, unless one comes from a school of education, most of us in academia were never offered a course in our disciplinary specializations on how to teach. That was certainly my experience as a historian. The first time I walked into a classroom - decades ago when I was a graduate student and given two survey history courses to teach on my own - I'm sure the word "pedagogy" was not even in my vocabulary. I just jumped in and hoped I didn't embarrass myself, which sadly, was not the case.

My early failings aside, what I had going for me as a teacher was a willingness to experiment in the classroom with learning techniques and strategies and a desire to understand student needs and challenges. Today, while professional development in instructional pedagogy is not generally required of faculty members, it is available and can lead to significant career growth. The American Council on Education, for example, promotes investing in faculty development because research shows that that faculty who engage in professional development improve their students' learning outcomes. Teaching is a complex communication strategy, and obviously the modes of instruction have changed over time, but teachers are also learners themselves, and there are great benefits to exploring new methods of engagement and trying new instructional modes of delivery. Considering how one has been changed by teaching, especially perhaps as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, is an interesting way for instructors to use metacognitive-reflective techniques to grow professionally. Thinking about the learning environments we create in our classrooms can also lead to experimentation that enhances student success. To me, being an "authentic teacher" means focusing on improving one's ability to help students learn.

From Tomeka Wilcher: "Authentic teaching" goes beyond teaching content. It is creating a learning community that provides students with the skills and knowledge to learn more about themselves so that they can become change agents. When I first started teaching, I was so focused on meeting standards or objectives and teaching a certain skill within a fixed time frame that I would minimize the relevance and the relationship components that are so essential to the learning process. As a result, I realized that my students lacked the interest and motivation to learn what was being taught. I knew I had to change my approach, my content and my delivery. If I wanted my students to understand the content, they had to see the value in what was being taught. They needed that connection to the content to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for it, the skill set and the process. Because I took the time to observe and listen to my students' wants and needs, I shifted my teaching and took an authentic approach.

Although I changed my mindset, I also had to change my teaching practices, my curriculum and the content used to teach the curriculum. It was a gradual process, but it was worth it. As years went by, I realized that this process must constantly evolve because the needs of students and society are ever changing. Today, I ask myself, "In this sociopolitical climate, in this era of social media, and with this constantly changing job market, where can my content help students find their place and their position?" As I create authentic learning experiences, I keep this question in the forefront. It is what grounds me yet motivates me. Authentic teaching is not about forcing students to love something we feel deeply about. Yes, we want students to appreciate and understand what we have taken the time to study and research; however, that takes time, and students may not realize what they have learned until years after a class has ended. Thus, in the immediacy of preparing a course, I find that when I focus on actively listening, remaining flexible, building relationships, and creating connections to what is being taught and what is being experienced outside the classroom, students can thrive and become more deeply aware of their own learning and my methods.

Dr. Annette Finley Croswhite is the Director of the Center for Faculty Development and a professor of history. Dr. Tomeka Wilcher is the Educational Program Developer at the CFD.

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