“Working for an instructor is worlds apart from working with an instructor with the aim of learning about the practice of teaching.”
A Plea for More Teaching Apprenticeships
by Mercy Corredor
What the genius myth is to the researcher, the great pedagog myth is to the teacher. Just as the genius myth presents one as either “having it” or not, the great pedagog myth tags one fairly early on in their careers in just the same way. One either has the charm, charisma, and clarity necessary for teaching or simply is not cut out for that part of the job. For fairly obvious reasons, there is much that is wrong about the great pedagog myth. For one, any good teacher will tell you that they only became good at their trade by caring enough to put in the hard work and thoughtfulness that is necessary (if not sufficient) for achieving their particular flavor of excellence.
And yet, I believe that there is something that’s actually right about the great pedagog myth. And that is what concerns me here today. Good teaching is not just about caring. One can care plenty and not yet have acquired the right habits and grace (e.g. helpful turns of phrases, ways of moving their bodies around the classroom, white board etiquette, ways of responding to behavioral problems, etc.) that allow one to feel at ease in the classroom and which are conducive to student-learning. These things, I suspect, really do come to some naturally, to others in time, and to some not at all. For those in the second and third groups, models of how to teach are often essential for acquiring the right habits. Graduate students are given ample opportunity to watch their faculty lecture to undergraduates and lead graduate seminars, but when one is trying to learn how to lead mid-sized classroom discussions, which is where most grad students find themselves, these models aren’t easily translatable.
But what if we could observe up close and personal, excellent examples of how to do the very thing our job as graduate students instructors requires of us? This past summer I worked closely with a masterful professor, Ann Cahill (Elon University), at the Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy. The HCSPiP specializes in innovative pedagogy and gives professors a platform to try out new pedagogical tools for two weeks in a pristine environment: tons of autonomy, great students, no grading, and a dedicated graduate student apprentice to help run the course. The program culminates with a pedagogy conference wherein the participating professors and apprentices reflect on the effectiveness of their respective courses. It is pedagogy utopia.
The program has many virtues, each of which could warrant its own blog post. But what most excites me—having served as one of the program’s three graduate student apprentices—about the program is that it gave me the ability to plan classes, lead discussion, and reflect on pedagogy alongside an excellent and experienced teacher. Every morning Ann and I would meet for breakfast at 8am and we would lesson plan for an hour, we would walk over to class together, co-teach the class, and we would then spend our walk back to the dining hall debriefing on what about the day’s class worked and what didn’t.
The apprenticeship model is importantly different from the standard model of learning to teach by serving as a TA. Working for an instructor is worlds apart from working with an instructor with the aim of learning about the practice of teaching. Working with requires that both the lead instructor and the graduate student see their relationships as a sort of co-teaching, where each member of the dynamic has a distinct set of skills and perspectives that each can learn from. Where the instructor will likely have more in the way of experience to bring to the table, the graduate student apprentice might be able to perceive and understand features of the classroom dynamic that might be opaque to the lead instructor.
During my time serving as an apprentice I learned so much about good pedagogy, so quickly, that I began to question why this model isn’t more standard in philosophy departments. One reason might be that it is too time-consuming, that graduate students simply don’t have the time for teaching apprenticeships. I could say something in response about how teaching well is intrinsically valuable or how we all spend a good portion of our time teaching and so should learn how to derive pleasure from the activity or how we simply have a certain set of duties to our students. But even for those who are unlikely to be moved by such arguments, my plea for more teaching apprenticeships still stands. For working closely with an excellent teacher taught me skills that made me a much more efficient teacher.
One might also worry that even if this would be helpful for graduate students, it would simply be too much work for the lead instructor. My thought here is that apprenticeships would build trust and shared-understanding between lead instructors and graduate students that often do not exist under the current model, and that this trust and shared-understanding would encourage faculty to share more of the work (e.g. lesson prep, assignment construction, etc.) with their graduate student co-teacher. Ultimately, with some creativity and good will, I believe that apprenticeships can serve the needs of both graduate students and professors.
Of course, not all teaching apprenticeships will go as well as mine. After all, I was lucky enough to have been paired with someone who is not just great at what she does but who also had the desire to mentor me well. The two likely share a root cause.
Yet, as we continue to think of new ways to breathe new life into how we teach philosophy and how we learn to teach philosophy, I believe we should be creative. Spending two weeks serving as an apprentice worked wonders for my teaching ability, comfort, and, above all, my passion for teaching. I suspect it would do the same for many others too.