Get yourself a teaching buddy to help you thrive

Rather than struggle through classroom-based problems alone, we should recruit meaningful support by seeking out a colleague to discuss our teaching, says Flower Darby

Flower Darby's avatar
University of Missouri
25 Aug 2022
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Getting an academic teaching buddy can help you work out lots of classroom issues rather than struggling alone

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Teaching is a notoriously individual undertaking. As the profession exists today in higher education, and with the exception of team-taught classes, many (if not most) professors determine what to do in class by themselves with little interaction with or support from colleagues.

Most of us learned to teach without much formal preparation. Your experience may have been like mine when I first started teaching English: I was given a colleague’s syllabus and mostly left to my own devices. When I began teaching online, I was likewise given a pre-developed course and pretty much left alone. This practice sets us up for a teaching experience with a lot of autonomy and scarce communication with department or campus-wide colleagues.

Consider: when faced with a challenge in class, what do you do? Do you invite your hallway neighbour for coffee and conversation about how to address it? Do you pick up the phone and call your local teaching centre consultant or instructional designer? Do you request time with your department chair to troubleshoot?

Sure, you may do these things on occasion, but based on my decades of experience teaching my own classes and supporting faculty members in teaching theirs, what we do most often is put our heads down and figure it out. By ourselves.

With so many demands on professors’ time, it’s easy to see why this happens. We identify a problem in our class: maybe students struggle to comprehend a complex concept, or perhaps they consistently do poorly on a certain paper or project, year after year. Maybe uncivil behaviour is beginning to characterise class interactions. Whatever the challenge may be, it can be hard to find the time to research possible solutions. The scholarly literature has much to offer in terms of evidence-based approaches, but we may not have developed a regular habit of consulting this research or even turning to the many books and media articles on teaching and learning (like this one).

Instead, very often we reflect on the problem, turning it over and over in our mind, and decide what to do without talking with anyone.

I know I’m overgeneralising here, but after working with thousands of college faculty in workshops, webinars and individual consultations, I’m convinced that this truly is the way we teach, the way we address class-related problems. By and large, it’s by ourselves.

The problem is, this model deprives us of truly important support from other smart, resourceful people who are wrestling with the same kinds of problems we are. I don’t blame anyone – the system and culture within which we work doesn’t foster teaching-focused collaboration. But we can take charge, recruit meaningful support and enjoy the benefits of horizontal mentoring when we seek out a colleague with whom to discuss our teaching.

Most importantly, seeking a teaching buddy can be a powerful way to develop as an equity-minded educator.

For a start, engaging with a trusted colleague can open up space to discuss teaching challenges, ideas for new strategies and adjustments to syllabi or assignments. Think of this person as a sounding board, someone to bounce ideas off. In countless workshops, I’ve observed instructors sharing an idea, answering questions about how they do it, discussing what works for them, etc.

For example, last week I was in a session where professors were discussing the use of name tents in their large enrolment classes to extend belonging to their students. But there are many different ways to implement the use of name tents. That day, my colleagues were discussing whether to ask students to bring their own tents to class every time or keep them and distribute/collect them each day – simple questions with significant impact on effective implementation. The ideas and suggestions were flowing vigorously among my faculty colleagues that day.

This is the best kind of spontaneous idea-sharing but, typically, workshops are not part of our everyday routine during the term. To replicate this kind of solutions-oriented conversation, be proactive. Find a teaching buddy. Agree on how you will interact with each other and how you can support each other. Then protect the time it takes to do so.

This person can review materials such as your syllabus, assignment instructions and discussion forum prompts, for example, to give you feedback on how you come across to your students. Are you aloof, authoritative, warm, supportive or a mix of all of these? How might you be more inclusive in your class materials?

Your teaching buddy could also observe you teaching in your physical classroom or online course and share strengths they noted as well as suggestions for small steps to improve your practice. And your buddy could be someone to partner with when it’s time to read student evaluations to get an objective perspective at an often-challenging time.

In short, your buddy could be someone with whom you mindfully collaborate to support your mutual growth as effective and inclusive educators. So, ask a colleague you trust if they’re interested. Better yet, propose a teaching buddy structure within your department – suggest this agenda item for your next meeting, for example. Or reach out to your teaching and learning centre to suggest a pilot of such a programme. However you choose to do it, take action to recruit a teaching buddy or create a programme to facilitate matchmaking. Both you and your students will benefit when you do.

Flower Darby is an associate director of the Teaching for Learning Center at the University of Missouri-Columbia. She is the author, with James M. Lang, of Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes.

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