Early Teaching Practice, Learning Styles, and the Phantom Zone

For the last few years I have been contemplating the training of teachers, mentorship programs, and all kinds of preparation and professional development efforts. However, in this second week of the Bonk MOOC, Instructional Ideas and Technology Tools for Online Success, an interesting question about learning styles and teaching was posed which brought a lot of my thinking on early teaching practice to the fore. Here is a slightly modified version of what I added to the course.

I think it is pretty fair to claim that our own learning styles greatly impact our teaching whether we realize it or not. That seems fairly obvious. Yet, I think it is a little more interesting and complicated than that alone. In fact, I would submit that it is in part a combination of our own learning styles and the way we were taught while students that are the two most critical factors in any teacher’s practice, at least in the early going or until they become self-aware and take measured steps to move beyond them.

I firmly believe that almost all new teachers perform out of a legacy to which all of their previous instructors taught. They mimic what they believe to be the best practices that they experienced as a student, possibly tweaking things based on what they see as improvements. They operate from this legacy in the face of any information to the contrary in their early practice mostly out of survival. Also, many of those methods that are adopted are comfortable and very likely appeal to their own preferred styles of learning, as well. They draw on their experiences and possibly even engage in some fuzzy nostalgia about the “days when I was in school.” Poor teachers remain locked in this Phantom Zone of legacy teaching, until they become self-aware enough to break out of it.

A corollary path is what might be considered the legacy rebound. It is still greatly informed by the legacy but more oppositional in nature. The teacher may still teach the way that they were taught subconsciously, but there are those teachers that enter the profession out of a sense of discontent. They react to the way that they were taught, particularly by instructors that they deem less than satisfactory, and think, “Well, Hell, I can do a better job than that.” What’s more, in most of these instances the unsatisfactory instructor was likely not appealing at all to the learner’s desired style, at least not enough to appease the frustration. The obvious solution in any would-be teacher’s mind, if this is at least part of their inspiration, is to teach in a way that favors their learning strength. So they begin their practice with a sense of mission to outperform their own past teachers. Teachers in this group probably are the most impacted by their own learning styles. This can be just as limiting as the Phantom Zone of legacy.

Of course, it is not all binary. However, I steadfastly believe that most teachers are kind of stuck on these paths at first, until they have enough experience and master mentors, well after they have been practicing for some time. Then they can become self-aware as teachers, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses with greater clarity, and when they are no teaching for survival. They will have progressed beyond the early phase of their practice and are no longer in a battling in the same way, engaged in a kind of self-absorbed dual consciousness of trying to do the best job they can do while simultaneously monitoring their own performance. Once they have a few go to strategies and success under their belt, they are ready for that next stage of development, honing and elevating their practice to a place of conscious testing and application. It is definitely part of the learning curve for any teacher, and it takes time, patience, and reflective practice.

I am not convinced that all teachers get to this point, but the best ones always do. They are not limited by the legacy or their own learning styles. They are free and aware enough to engage with workmanship that is truly responsive and student-centered. They have a well-adjusted understanding of what kind of teacher they are and are capable of valid self-assessment and reflection that guides improvement and professional development choices.

One of the troubles with a profession like teaching, where there is such a high turnover rate, particularly in the first five years, is that narrow time frame almost assures that there will be a limited number of teachers that advance to that state of self-awareness. Teachers that leave before five years simply haven’t likely taught enough to graduate to a better practice. Worse still, it doesn’t make any difference how accountable they are or not, because they would be teaching with a kind of handicap and may not even know it. Yet, digging into that fact is probably a topic for another post.

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