Because I was the first person in my family to attend university, my parents didn’t have large wells of resources to draw from when offering academic advice. However, they taught me to never be shy about asking questions if I didn’t understand the material.
‘Don’t be afraid to speak up, because the teacher is paid to answer your questions,’ my mother always said.
Most of my primary and high school teachers welcomed questions, but not all did. Some discouraged questions as they rushed to prepare us for standardised exams. Others were simply impatient with questions that didn’t fit into their vision for the lesson plan.
Thankfully, some teachers invited questions as a chance to review the material or explore it from a different angle. I fondly remember Robert Graham and Dorcas Carpenter, both dedicated teachers in my rural school system. Their humour and openness to questions created lively, fun classrooms. As their student, I felt safe to experiment with new ideas — and even fail on occasion.
I often think about these past teaching mentors when I deliver my workshops at Write. My learning experiences taught me that trainers can powerfully impact the workshop’s environment. My goal as a facilitator is to create learning environments that encourage questions and discussion. I’ve found that this supportive atmosphere typically includes shared power between facilitators and participants.
My interest in the relationship between learning and power stems from my early teaching experiences. As a postgraduate student completing my PhD in Communication and Culture, I taught undergraduate students. I was less than 10 years older than most of the students.
Those early years of teaching were a steep learning curve as I learned how to establish my authority in the classroom. Sometimes, students interpreted my youth and naturally gentle demeanour as invitations to misbehave. When they passed notes or didn’t do the assigned readings, I didn’t know how to react because I’d always been a diligent student.
Driven by my frustration, I pursued a teaching pedagogy certificate, which required a short thesis. I immediately chose the topic of managing poor student behaviour.
According to the research, examples of poor student behaviour include being late to class or leaving early, disregarding deadlines, and having side conversations while the instructor is speaking. Perhaps the research would offer ideas to help me better respond to the students.
As I examined the research, I expected that it would only focus on disruptive student behaviour. I instead discovered studies that looked at how instructor behaviour impacts learning.
For example, Sara Banfield, Virginia Richmond, and James McCroskey’s essay, ‘The effect of teacher misbehaviors on teacher credibility and affect for the teacher,’ discusses how students often perceive credible teachers as honest, caring, and approachable.* The researchers define teacher misbehaviours as giving boring lectures and returning papers late, to list some examples. As they point out, ‘Teachers must be aware that they are not only providing facts and information but also impacting how students perceive them as individuals.’
The research on teacher behaviour overwhelmingly argues that students learn best when instructors model respect, honesty, and even fun. To this end, I learned that students respected me more when I was honest about not having all the answers. When I welcomed questions and looked up the answers if needed, I demonstrated how we never stop learning. I sometimes created a collaborative treasure-hunt as we searched on our phones for the information.
I left university teaching in 2013, but I still use what I learned from the teaching research in my workshops at Write.
One of my greatest joys as a trainer is to use storytelling to encourage questions. I often describe past teachers such as Robert Graham. When I shared my frustrations about writing with him, he advised me to never be afraid to ask for help.
I find that sharing my experiences encourages participants to ask questions too. During a recent workshop, one participant asked how to write documents for audiences who give feedback without reading her reports. We chuckled as we talked about our frustration in handling these types of audiences. I used her example to discuss how we can structure documents to help readers quickly scan the main points.
Of course, some facilitators may not feel comfortable sharing personal experiences. Facilitators should use techniques that match their personality and style. However, even our smallest actions as facilitators can encourage participants to ask questions and experiment with new skills.
When I took my negative attention off student behaviour and focused on my own actions, the poor student behaviour almost completely disappeared. I modelled the learning environment that I wanted to make happen. As I wrote in my teaching certificate thesis, ‘through my actions, I can create an engaging learning environment where people want to learn’.
* Banfield, S R, V P Richmond, and J C McCroskey. ‘The effect of teacher misbehaviors on teacher credibility and affect for the teacher.’ Communication Education 55 (1): 63–72.