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Reflections on a 40-Year Teaching Career

Ron Foresta teaching teachers about Knoxville’s urban geography as part of a field trip during the 2007 National Endowment Summer Teacher Institute on the Geography of the American South.
Ron Foresta teaching teachers about Knoxville’s urban geography as part of a field trip during the 2007 National Endowment Summer Teacher Institute on the Geography of the American South.

When Kurt Butefish, our newsletter editor, asked me to write a brief article on my teaching philosophy, I was flattered and agreed immediately. I thought it would be a piece of cake; I’m near the end of a 40-year teaching career and I’ve learned a thing or two about my trade in these years. A lot spilled out on the screen when I started typing: teaching tricks, biases, tics, preferences, habits, etc. But no philosophy. That is, no deep, unifying ideal or principle, certainly not the kind of wisdom found in the mission statements of teaching institutes or the valedictory statements of honored teachers.

All I really had was a bunch of responses to the problems that teaching involves, ad hoc responses, picked up on the fly. Although sometimes polished to a gloss by use, none were fit drinking companions for true wisdom. Moreover, there wasn’t much connectivity to what I had learned, much as there wasn’t much connectivity within the teaching challenges that has elicited them. There did seem to be one principle that much of the learning clustered around, however. I should probably talk about it; it’s got as much loftiness as I’m capable of.

I’m a very classroom-oriented teacher. Managing in-class teaching time elicits a disproportionate share of my accumulated pedagogical chops. By teaching time, I mean that portion of a class not devoted to the administrative stuff, or fiddling with the projector and the laptop, or handing back the tests, but the actual time available for teaching or otherwise managing student learning. It’s as fragile as it is precious, vulnerable as it is to so many things that want to degrade it or snatch it away from the class and me.

Much of my attention therefore goes to holding on to this teaching time. More goes to optimizing it. A lot of what I do is utterly pedestrian sounding. First off, it isn’t teaching time if a student isn’t in class so I get on them – and stay on them – about attendance. If students miss a class, I let them know it was noticed. I try to do everything out of class that can be done that way. For example, I seldom go over tests in class. I post the answers on the course website and tell the students to check their answers against mine and then come see me during office hours if they have questions. I start class on time and usually run to the last minute. This means getting the students to class and into their seats on time and keeping them tuned in until class ends. Both of these require constant reminders, but it’s worth the nagging. Class time is precious; I don’t want it nibbled away at either end.

The smart-classroom technology is a major threat to my teaching time. It is fickle, buggy, and feature-creep ridden. If you’re not prepared for every curve in its bag of tricks, you can waste half a class fiddling with the projector and its co-conspirators and the rest of it waiting for the tech guys to come and figure out the problem. I get to class early to set up and work through the unexpected as it pops us and that usually does it, but one semester I figured that smart-classroom technology was responsible for almost half of the teaching time I lost over a semester. We are not friends.

Then there is my preparation for managing the teaching time. I figure out the flow of material for the course in advance, and how, ideally, each class is a step along the way. I pick readings and outside assignments for their capacity to make specific contributions to a specific class. I make sure this is all spelled out on the syllabus, which then acts as an operating manual for me and a guidebook for my students. I come into class with a clear idea of what I want learned and if there is a PowerPoint presentation on tap, which there usually is, how each image contributes the teaching objectives I’ve set out.

I’m sure all this makes me sound like a martinet but once I’m prepared, I’m willing to let the class take whatever form it wants. I’ll let it start out as a lecture and turn into a discussion. Or I’m ready for it to start as a discussion that I’ll reel in if needed. I’m also willing to spend more time on a topic if the students seem to want it and the extra time is being well spent, knowing how and where I’ll catch up. But we can talk about actually teaching later.

-Submitted by Ron Foresta, Professor