Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

What is exceptional teaching?

Exceptional teaching provides structured opportunities for both students and the teacher to hear one’s inner voice and understand one’s calling.

Aside from being the executive director of a center for teaching and learning, I’m also a teacher myself. As I was getting ready to apply for promotion to full professor at my university, I did a lot of thinking and writing about teaching and learning.

The statement in the box above is my own definition of exceptional teaching. As I strive to become an exceptional teacher, this is what guides me. I want to provide structured opportunities for both myself and the students to hear our inner voice and learn to understand the call that has been put on our hearts to use our strengths to make the world a better place.

When I first began to teach, I focused on doing it “the right way.” I thought if I could just find the right formula, my students would learn in the best way possible. But as I’ve learned and grown, I’ve come to understand, as Parker Palmer says, “Our deepest calling is to grown into our own authentic selfhood…. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks – we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

So, as teachers, we need to find our own calling, our own authentic self. And we’ll also work to help our students find their calling and their authentic self. Understanding this concept led me to focus on thinking about how to use my unique combination of strengths, knowledge, and skills to provide the best opportunities for learning and growth for my students.

In the first years of teaching, my focus was on getting the information into the heads of the students. This philosophy led me to do a lot of lecturing, and although my understanding of learning lead me to try to incorporate discussion into these lectures, it didn’t seem very effective. The students didn’t seem to be able to jump into these discussions embedded into the lecture with the simple questions that I had prepared. I found this format frustrating because I knew that I had interesting information to share, but the way I was going about it didn’t seem to be connecting with the students and getting them hooked into learning.

Over the summer between my first and second year of teaching I read the book, Learner-Centered Teaching by Maryellen Weimer. This book greatly influenced me. Having experimented with some active learning during the first year, this book gave me a philosophy on which to base what I came to think of as my own natural style of teaching, that of the learner-centered classroom. As a school psychologist, I studied and understood the issues of how people learn, that all people do not learn in the same way, that people have preferred modes of processing information, and that people learn best when they apply the concept and use it to solve problems rather than just memorizing facts.

From this perspective, straight lecturing just didn’t make sense. My focus became how to help my students 1) learn the class material and 2) become better life long learners by aiding them in developing some broader skills that they could apply in other classes and in life outside of the classroom.

This began my foray into active learning. As I’ve grown as a teacher, I’ve continued to try out new practices and strategies. In this series, I’ll share about active learning as well as some specific active learning strategies and ways that I’ve successfully used contemplative and creative practices in my classroom. I’m looking forward to this discussion on creating space for learning!

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