Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of commentaries by CU faculty, presented by the Faculty Council Communications Committee and CU Connections. Learn more here and submit your own column pitch.
In my first year as a faculty member, I was swept away with the tidal wave of teaching a 4-4, prepping new courses, engaging in research and service while also managing my life as a mother of a 3-year-old and 6-month-old with a partner who travels five months of the year for work.
I describe those first few years as treading water in an angry ocean, just trying to stay afloat. Wave after giant wave relentlessly crashing down left barely enough time to take a small breath before the next wave. During that time, the learning curve was steep. Every day, I was pushed to the limit of my abilities and beyond my comfort zone so improvements in my teaching naturally followed, and quickly.
After a while, the waves became smaller and fewer and farther between and I became more comfortable in my ability to teach. I found a sense of stability, possibly a false sense but a sense nonetheless. For a while, the sense of stability was a welcomed change and I found that I had more time and energy to invest in other parts of my job. However, with that stability came more comfort and with that comfort I noticed a slower rate of improvement in my classroom.
While my Faculty Course Questionnaire scores and feedback were always encouraging, I realized that teaching is exhausting for me and that wasn’t becoming easier. I began to question why teaching was so tiring and I worried how that was impacting my students. I wondered, maybe I need to get better for teaching to feel better. I knew I needed to figure it out; I just had to find a way to do it.
I heard someone on the radio say, “Think about this – any moment of joy, happiness or success you’ve had only came after a sacrifice or discomfort.” This statement held true for me and brought me back to my days as a college athlete where our coach would yell at us: “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!” It was only after the fact that my teammates and I realized being uncomfortable is actually an essential ingredient for growth. After thinking about my college days, I started having this nagging feeling that I needed to find the courage to swim back out into the ocean to become uncomfortable again. If anything, it would keep me from a mundane existence or premature burnout.
I then recalled the book “Talent Is Overrated” (Colvin, 2010), which describes how expertise is less associated with talent and more related to how one practices (i.e., practice versus deliberate practice). Practice is a mechanistic, mindless repetition of a skill-set you already possess, which I equate to finding comfort away from the waves. Deliberate practice, on the other hand, is the intentional, purposeful repetition of activities designed to improve performance that pushes you beyond your current ability and is linked to the development of expertise (Ericsson et al., 1993). Through the use of ongoing self-reflection and observations from a coach, you work to identify mistakes and devise a plan to correct them. I decided that this deliberate practice stuff might be my guide in examining my teaching.
I reached out to Margaret Wood and Donna Sobel at the Center for Faculty Development at CU Denver to seek assistance in developing my own deliberate practice plan. We have had many conversations regarding the characteristics of good teaching and watched a video of my teaching to identify potential areas for improvement. These conversations have been interesting and helpful, however, I continued to struggle to truly pinpoint why teaching was so exhausting and what that meant for student success.
A part of my deliberate practice plan is to identify a coach who embodies the skill I wish to achieve. Therefore, I reached out to David Thomas, whom I have seen speak multiple times about fun in the classroom and each time I saw something in his approach that embodies the innovative teaching for which I strive.
Through several conversations with David, I have begun to believe I am less interested in typical improvements in teaching (e.g., curriculum design, classroom planning, adjustments in lessons and or activities); instead, I have come to believe the changes I am seeking are on a personal level. I began wondering if I had simply learned to act like a professor and maybe not being congruent with who I am as a person was leaving me depleted. I wondered if perhaps integrating my authentic self in my teaching would come more naturally, require less energy, and it might just connect with my students on an authentic level potentially leading to deeper learning.
The biggest struggle I have had is pinpointing exactly what “authentic teaching” means. In order to be authentic, I can’t model my teaching after anyone else’s or simply incorporate best-practice teaching strategies. I have to figure out what authenticity means for me, how to incorporate it in the classroom, and find the connection between authenticity and student achievement. I have found this, initially, simple and general desire to improve my teaching has led me down a complicated path, yet a meaningful and much needed path of self-discovery.
Admittedly, I am still lost and confused at times. But after months of self-reflection and with the encouragement from David, I have created a strong foundation for becoming true to who I am in the classroom. Conversations with David as well as his feedback from observing my teaching have allowed me to continuously adjust my deliberate practice plan to better define authentic teaching and devise a plan to incorporate it within my lessons.
Although this is still a work in progress, I am finding ways to incorporate fun, games and genuine connections with my students while purposefully linking course objectives and student outcomes. Some of what feels more authentic in the classroom is extremely difficult to put into words – it simply feels like I have begun to let go of what teaching should be and have allowed my natural ability, humor and way of being to come through.
I would certainly say incorporating authenticity feels uncomfortable and risky. However, I have noticed that not only do I feel more energized after my classes, my students also seem to be more engaged in their learning.
Perhaps my purpose in sharing this journey with you is to recruit fellow faculty to join me in deliberate practice whether it be your teaching, research or other some other skill altogether. I invite ideas, conversations, connections and maybe someone who wants to join me in the waves.
Lisa Forbes is an assistant clinical professor at CU Denver in the School of Education and Human Development in the Counseling Program since January 2016. She earned her Ph.D. in counselor education and supervision with an emphasis in couples and family therapy from the University of Northern Colorado. At CU Denver, Lisa teaches counseling techniques, group counseling, counseling children and adolescents, practicum and internship. She is training to become a registered play therapist and engages in research on intensive mothering, gender conformity, and mental health outcomes.