How Did You Learn to Teach?

If there’s one regret I have about graduate school, it’s that I never learned to teach. No courses on education are required as part of the curriculum, and the one class I remember being available was offered during an already overloaded semester for me. None of the internships I had involved information literacy instruction. So, I arrived a fully-fledged librarian without having taught (or been taught how to teach) an information literacy session. Meredith Farkas’ blog post on this topic made me realize I’m not alone. Her informal twitter poll shows that more than half of the librarians she surveyed didn’t receive information literacy training prior to starting to teach, and I’m sure there are many more out there.

By the time I was interviewing for jobs, I knew this was an area I would need to actively develop, partly because it was essential for the types of jobs I was interested in and partly because I thought I would really like it. When I started at UVa and needed to set my goals for the following year, learning to teach was at top of the list. Am I all the way there yet? Definitely not (it’s not exactly a finite goal). But I have made some strides towards getting more comfortable planning and teaching classes. Now that I’m wrapping up my instruction obligations for the semester, I thought I’d take a look at how I got here.

Digging into the literature

I knew I didn’t know enough about information literacy to teach it, so the first thing I did was dig into the literature to get up to speed.  Following along with Zoe Fisher’s 100 information literacy articles in 100 days project was a great primer, and I highly recommend her blog posts summarizing her findings. I also started following instruction-focused blogs like the excellent Rule Number One and following their reading recommendations. When I started to feel unsure about how to turn the abstraction of the framework into practice, I sought out lesson plans and activities written by other librarians. Browsing through Project CORA (Community of Online Research Assignments) and the Critical Library Pedagogy Handbook Volume 2 have been particularly helpful. This reading helped me lay the intellectual and theoretical groundwork for teaching, but I wasn’t yet sure what it looked like in the classroom.

Observing classes and co-teaching

Next, I shamelessly asked as many colleagues as I could to shadow their classes. I sat in on classes ranging from general library orientation sessions for first-years to discipline-specific research methods classes for upperclassmen. Watching experienced teachers in the classroom is probably the most helpful thing I could have done, since it gave me something to model my own teaching after. Co-teaching was another useful step in my learning process. Partnering on workshops and classes helped me gain confidence in lesson-planning and in the classroom. It feels a little bit like teaching with training wheels. If things go awry, or an idea you have is wildly off-base, there’s someone there to help gently correct you.

Just going for it

After reading so many blogs and articles and Twitter feeds and watching experienced colleagues, I started to feel paralyzed. No activity I thought of seemed creative enough. I was scared someone would ask me a question I couldn’t answer, or that I wouldn’t know how to facilitate an engaging discussion. On the morning of my first solo class of the semester, I took a moment to think about what I was really nervous about, and realized that I had started to fear that I would be responsible for the instruction session that turned a faculty member off the library for a decade. I had made the stakes feel way too high for myself.

I tried to reframe the things, and just think about myself going into a room full of people to learn and to help other people learn.  There was no article I could read or lesson plan I could write or class I could observe that would replace the experience of just trying it. And you know what? That class went really well. Since then, I’ve had a few more classes – some have been energizing and I left feeling like I had really hit the mark; a few have felt awkward or were received unenthusiastically, and the world didn’t end.

What makes these experiences feel so high-stakes is what Veronica mentioned (and problematized)  in her last post: you often have to work hard to get into the classroom in the first place. As someone whose departments do not have a strong history of library instruction, the few opportunities I had this semester to teach one-shot or multiple sessions in a course felt like critical breaks, instead of opportunities to learn. Taking some of the pressure off of myself – and remembering that I’m still learning – helped me approach them more openly.

For those of you who were launched into positions with teaching responsibilities without any training, how did you learn to teach? And for the experienced teachers out there, how would you recommend continuing to grow?

One thought on “How Did You Learn to Teach?

  1. Another useful thing is to do postgrad education courses that are run mainly with lecturers in mind. There are a few benefits with this approach. First of course, you learn about teaching & learning fundamentals, especially as they apply in adult learning & higher education settings. Second, most of the students are academics so you get some great insights into their issues, attitudes, etc. Third, if the courses are run by your university, even if you don’t have fellow students who belong to your portfolio, you will be studying with academics in portfolios of your librarian colleagues so you have fabulous opportunities to promote your colleagues as well as challenging the not so helpful pre-existing views of librarians’ & libraries’ roles.

    And, even if you are the only librarian, it’s still a fantastic learning experience because postgrad courses like these are aimed at lifelong learning for the workplace so they tend to let you adapt things (within the expected learning outcomes). This means that you can make all of your learning activities incredibly relevant to you even though you might sometimes feel that you sit on the margins of the course.

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