A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
May 12, 2005 Volume 35 / Number 8


Jumping off the Roof: Back in the Classroom

Like many little boys I wanted to fly. In imitation of Superman, I tied a sheet around my neck. Because I wasn’t totally without sense, I also outfitted myself with an opened umbrella before I jumped off the roof of our two-story house. Lying on the ground, I thought to myself, “This idea needs work.” The first time I taught, armed with lots of facts and a written lecture, I talked as rapidly as possible for 50 minutes and dismissed the students. As I breathlessly finished, and reflected on the confused looks of the students, I thought, “This needs work.” It has taken me a long time as a teacher to figure out what will work.

This semester, after a decade outside of the classroom, I went back in. I had promised my chair, with some degree of trepidation, to teach a class in sociology. I was nervous because I had never taught a class about the family. Several of my colleagues had told me that our students lacked motivation and were not well prepared. Others had told me I would love being back in the classroom. I have indeed enjoyed it. Let me tell you what worked and why.

One of the best things I learned is that when I talked to my colleagues in sociology and elsewhere about teaching, they were extremely gracious, patient, and tactful. They generously shared ideas, experiences, and syllabi with me. They were patient answering my many questions about how they got students interested, and tactful about what was and was not possible. This support was comforting. Still, I faced the reality of choosing a text, building a course syllabus, teaching every Monday from 4-7 pm, and figuring out how to keep students engaged for those three hours.

I went to the publishers’ booths at the annual meeting of my national association. This was a daunting experience. Some of the texts I reviewed were pitched at such a low level that I feared for my profession. Others came with so many features (test banks, teacher’s manuals, overheads, ready-made power-point presentations) that I wondered what had happened to the role of the instructor. The whole adventure was slightly more traumatic than choosing a new car. But I did choose a text that had exactly the learning outcomes I wanted for my course, that would allow me to offer my own insights and experiences, and that would not cost the students a small fortune.

I started to keep a journal of my concerns about teaching again, my goals for the class, my discussions with my colleagues, and the reading I was doing. There is nothing special about this; it’s something I learned from attending workshops on teaching and from attending the CELT conferences on our campus. It has been an extremely valuable thing to do.

The next step was to make sure I understood the GE learning goals for my class. I found the need to match what I wanted to do with the goals for GE to be an aggravating experience. But the more I worked on developing a syllabus that clearly laid out learning goals congruent with those of the area in which I was teaching, the more I refined and clarified for myself what I really wanted the students to learn.

As I thought about what I wanted the students to learn, I started to make lists of questions—literally a couple of hundred of them—that I would ask if I were a student taking a class on the family. I asked myself questions such as “What is the most valuable lesson your parents could learn from you about how to be a parent?” “If you were teaching the course, how would you have made the point that the family is historically determined and shaped by political, economic, and social forces?”—precisely the learning outcome I had for the course. Every question I asked the students was intended to help them learn just this point. On the first day of class, I gave the students all of the questions for the entire semester, including the final questions they would need to answer. This worked.

After all my labor over the syllabus, the questions, and choosing the text, I still needed a way to keep the students engaged. The very first night I handed out the “7 Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” and reviewed those principles with the students. I explained to them that whatever else happened, I wanted them to understand how I was organizing the class and what I was trying to accomplish. Then, after three weeks, I gave them a handout of the “7 Principles” and asked them to evaluate the class on its terms. Then, I adjusted my teaching accordingly. In the ninth week of class, I again gave them the principles and asked for detailed feedback. It will probably not surprise you that people disagreed both about what I was doing well and what was not working for them.

One of the most important things I experienced this semester is that the “7 Principles” are a very effective way to organize a class and to help our students. I also learned that virtually all of my students rose to the level of the challenge I set for them. I have students who are as good as any students I have ever taught; they have worked their hearts out. A few did not. I’m not sure why I could not reach them, but I know it needs work. And, I know the “7 Principles” are a good parachute.

—Scott G. McNall