The Importance of Good Teaching

Dean Monk's column for Connections, May 2012

Dean's Message

(May 2012)

Editor’s Note: Dean Monk was honored to be the guest speaker at the Penn State Berks commencement ceremonies, held May 5. His address is presented below.


Members of the Class of 2012:

It’s a great privilege for me to have this opportunity to join members of the faculty and staff of Penn State Berks, members of your families, and your friends and loved ones on the occasion of your commencement from Penn State University at the Berks Campus.

I’d like to share with you some thoughts about the importance of good teaching as you begin your new lives with your degrees in hand.

I think about teaching and learning from a somewhat unusual perspective. Perhaps the most common disciplinary base for a person with these interests is psychology or social psychology.

In contrast to this, my disciplinary background lies in the area of economics.

Economists tend to have a great reverence for markets and how markets answer questions about the production and distribution of goods and services.

There is a grim—and some might say “dismal”—side to economics and its emphasis on markets. This grimness stems from the fact that in many cases the goods and services that one person consumes are not available for someone else to consume. So, the paint I put on my house is not available for someone else to put on their house, and the gasoline I burn in my car is not available for someone else to use in their car.

One of the wonderful things about education is that it can defy this grim side of economics. The fact that one person in a class learns a lesson and gains a deeper understanding of something does not take away from the next person’s ability to gain the same or even a deeper insight. The fact is that one student’s learning can actually enhance the learning of other students.

Education can also work its magic for teachers. If I succeed at teaching something to my students, what my students gain does not come at my expense. My understanding of something is not diminished because I’ve taught it to someone else. The really remarkable thing is that if I’ve taught my lesson skillfully, I’m actually enhanced by having done so, and my students benefit as well.

I’ve always been intrigued by how education can defy these economic laws of production and distribution. I like the idea of overcoming the dismal side of markets, and I like the idea that education in general and teaching in particular has this power.

So, you’ve been immersed in a world of teaching and learning in your years at the Berks Campus, and you are probably accustomed to thinking of yourselves primarily as students.

Some of you are headed into careers that have explicit teaching responsibilities. Some of you will be entering the public schools as certified teachers, counselors, or specialists. Some of you may be heading into university careers where you will join faculties and soon find yourselves standing in front of blackboards, or white boards, or perhaps in front of some form of technologically sophisticated telecommunication device.

But most of you probably do not see yourselves going into teaching in any sort of explicit way. Most of you are heading into the world of colleagues and clients, and you may be thinking you’re entering a new phase in your life where teaching is going to be a less important part of your day-to-day affairs.

I want to challenge this idea. I want to argue that as you move into these professional roles, you will almost inevitably find yourselves in situations where you are going to need to teach.

And you’re going to find yourselves dealing with many of the problems that teachers face routinely . . .

  • You’ll have colleagues and clients who will vary in how quickly they grasp the meaning of what you’re trying to convey.
  • You’ll also have colleagues and clients who will think they grasp your meaning, only to discover down the line that a mistake was made—and these mistakes can be quite costly. And the chances are good that you’ll find yourself fretting over these mistakes and you may even find yourself being held responsible for their consequences.

 

I’m willing to speculate that the people who move forward in professional life, be they attorneys, physicians, architects, accountants, scientists, engineers, social workers, planners, counselors, or what have you, are those who have good teaching skills.

I encourage all of you to think of yourselves as teachers, and I encourage all of you to put some effort into developing your teaching skills.

  • I want to dispel the myth that good teachers are fashioned out of whole cloth into the full realization of their God-given talents.
  • I want to dispel the myth that good teaching skills are immutable.
  • And I want to dispel the myth that good teaching is simply a matter of good intention.

 

The reality is that good teaching requires hard work, the development of some very specific skills, and a thorough grasp of the content being taught.

The further reality is that as good as we might become as teachers, there’s always room for improvement and we can all learn things about how to teach more effectively.

I believe that universities have a responsibility to work with their students to develop these teaching skills.

Overall, I don’t think universities do a very good job with this. I think Penn State does a better job than most, and I’ve been impressed by the large number of initiatives at Penn State that are succeeding at improving the quality of teaching within the University.

But, I still worry that we’re not doing enough to prepare our students in this area. My suspicion is that you’re much better prepared in your various content areas than you are in your ability to teach with distinction.

So, my point is that you’re going to find yourselves teaching, regardless of the field or profession you enter, and I’m willing to voice my suspicion that we haven’t done as much as we should to prepare you for this part of your future work.

But, I don’t want you to use this as an excuse. You need to take your teaching seriously, you need to think about it, learn from your mistakes, consult with your colleagues, seek help, and be conscious of the fact that you need to function effectively as a teacher.

I have a modest suggestion for how you might hold onto these ideas. I’d like you to think back over your life and raise up in your mind the one, or two or perhaps three individuals who stand out as being particularly good teachers for you. Don’t restrict yourself to those you’ve encountered with official titles like teacher, lecturer, or professor. Be inclusive and think about coaches, parents, guardians, aunts or uncles, or friends of your family.

I’d like you to keep a special place in your memory and heart for these individuals. Think about what they did to function so effectively as a teacher in your life. See if you can emulate them in your work over the next 40 to 50 or more years.

And just to add a little grit to your mental image, I’d also like you to think about the one or two or perhaps three individuals who stand out as being the most awful teachers you’ve ever encountered. Bring these individuals into focus, and please promise yourself that you’ll do everything possible to avoid becoming anything like these persons.

As I prepared these remarks, I asked some colleagues to go through this exercise. Somewhat to my chagrin, a number of my friends had trouble singling out the outstanding teachers in their lives. And again to my chagrin, everyone I asked had no trouble identifying the awful teachers in their lives.

I dare to hope that your set of outstanding teachers is quite full.

I dare to hope that the image you have of your awful teachers will help you to avoid that fate.

I want you all to develop into exemplary teachers who have an appreciation for how precious good teaching is and what needs to be done to nourish it and to encourage its spread.

I wish you the very best in your pursuits. May you go out of this place and live spiritually, personally, and professionally rewarding lives. I wish you godspeed, and I hope you’ll be able to return in some way, be it electronically or physically, to this wonderful place in the years that lie ahead and feel like it was here that your mind was opened and prepared, and that it was here that you took the first steps toward becoming the excellent teacher that I’ve just asked you to promise yourselves that you will become.

Congratulations to you all and thank you very much.

 

David H. Monk

Dean