Taking the terror out of teaching

by Paul Gott

Ralph Harris has always enjoyed working at McGill, but he didn't always enjoy teaching. He used to worry so much about teaching his metallurgy courses that he'd lose sleep over his course plan. Literally.

Then he discovered McGill's Centre for University Teaching and Learning. "I got in touch with them and (CUTL professor) Cheryl Amundsen invited me to a faculty discussion group," says Harris. "And even my first meeting made me look at teaching in a completely different manner."

The faculty discussion groups are one of several methods the centre uses to help professors examine how they teach and how they might improve their methods, both for their students and themselves.

"What happened for me was that I changed my focus from how I was teaching and how my students thought about me to how my students were performing," says Harris. "It wasn't that I was having a lot of problems teaching-it's just that my old approach created far too much stress."

And that's one of the keys to the centre's program. It doesn't necessarily deal with teachers who are performing badly, but with those who want to get some new perspectives on their profession.

"I think we have splendid professors at McGill," says professor Alenoush Saroyan, one of the centre's discussion leaders.

"While we can help with some basic organizational work for teaching, part of the work we do is to create an atmosphere in which professors can openly exchange ideas and opinions."

The centre doesn't offer any magical solutions for all professors, but it does focus on a simple teaching philosophy.

"It's not uncommon to think of teaching and learning as synonymous. They're not," says Saroyan. "What we're trying to do is take the focus off the teacher's performance and shift it to how well the students are learning."

Harris agrees that his involvement with the centre has helped him gain a new perspective on his profession.

"They're like teaching engineers," he says. "Most people just drive a car, but an engineer knows exactly how it works. They (the centre) look at a teacher and they see all the technology behind being a teacher. As a teacher, you just do it."

Started in 1969, the centre has expanded to include discussion groups and workshops with a wide range of goals.

"Sometimes we get requests from whole faculties or departments," says Saroyan. "For instance, last year we conducted a workshop for the Food Sciences department where all of the faculty got involved."

The centre also holds a new faculty orientation session, an intensive 40 hour, week-long teaching workshop in the spring, orientation for teaching assistants, and the long-standing weekly discussion groups.

Harris says that his involvement with the centre's discussion groups made teaching an enjoyable challenge as opposed to a source of enormous anxiety.

"I'm less nervous about teaching now­a lot less," he says. "Though it always helps to be a little on edge when you're in front of a class or you start to look like you're dead up there."

Harris notes that the centre also helps professors to set up realistic expectations.

"They taught me how to focus on what they call learning objectives," he says. "You try to set short-term goals for your students and make sure they're learning what you're teaching," Harris recommends the centre to other professors who might want to try experimenting with differnet approaches to teaching. And he remembers his high anxiety a little ruefully.

"The main thing that contributes to McGill's reputation is the quality of its students," he says. "Most of them will do well in class and well in life despite what their teachers do to them."