One of the things that fascinate me about both teaching and clinical work is the degree to which you must know yourself in order to be successful. There is no one size fits all approach to teaching. I hear my colleagues talk about wonderful things they do in their classrooms, and while I admire their innovation and creativity, I also know pretty quickly if it would likely work for me or not. Developing a style of teaching that both fits your personality and is comfortable is, in my opinion, almost as important as understanding the process of learning and the research on pedagogy, for teaching is more than delivery of information. It is a relationship, and if done correctly can have a powerful influence on the lives of our students.
Given my background in mental health, I have spent a lot of time studying how relationships form. A survey of over 2,000 psychotherapists found Carl Rogers was rated as the most influential theorist on how they practice therapy (Cook, Biyanova, & Coyne, 2009). Rogers’s primary contribution to the field was the three essential components of therapy: empathy, unconditional positive regard, and genuineness. These concepts have been shown to facilitate healing in those seeking mental health services, but I think they apply to teaching as well. Empathy forms the basis of strong relationships. I strive to establish relationships with my students so I am more than a source of information. I want them to feel understood and heard, both when they are enjoying the class and when they are frustrated. I work to foster empathy between students as well, and together this contributes strongly to the establishment of a safe atmosphere for learning. I push students to take risks in class, whether by sharing their perspective, respectfully challenging each other’s conclusions, or performing role plays in front of their peers. Without a strong sense of safety, students will not be willing to engage in these activities and opportunities for learning will be lost.
Unconditional positive regard is about finding and valuing the humanity in others, regardless of their behaviors. This can sometimes be a challenge when faced with opinions that differ radically from your own, but is important for classroom climate. I encourage debate in my classes, especially at the upper-level, and issues can sometimes be divisive. Fostering respectful discourse, even when impassioned, is a valuable skill for students regardless of their future career paths. Positive regard also shows up in my teaching as having high expectations for my students. Communicating high expectations, along with my belief that students can rise to these expectations, shows students I think highly of them and helps foster the self-efficacy needed to push themselves beyond what they think they are capable of doing. The provision of appropriate support, both academic and personal, is the critical element to having high standards without the perceptions of being unreasonable or impossible to please. I incorporate this into my teaching via modeling of leading discussions in my upper-level courses, scaffolding assignments to break large projects into component parts, and making extra appointments outside of office hours to make sure students get the help they need.
Genuineness comes into play in several ways. I described above the importance of finding a teaching style that fits. Students will recognize phoniness quickly and this puts a barrier between us. I strive to maintain my personality traits when I’m with my students so we can relate and connect more fully. Given mental health can be a difficult topic to talk about, I deliberately inject humor into my courses to lighten the mood. This must be done carefully, as mental health issues are not a joke, but difficult topics are often best introduced using a gradual approach-retreat method. So while I will use humor to disarm students’ anxieties, I work hard to ensure humor and levity are not what they are left with at the end of the lesson. For example, I might show a clip from Scrubs, where Michael J Fox guest starred as a doctor with obsessive-compulsive disorder to illustrate how the symptoms can emerge in a quirky way, but I follow that with another clip where he discusses the sometimes crippling nature of the same disorder.
The other aspect of teaching I connect with genuineness is the design of assignments. I strive to have assignments be meaningful and reflect work psychologists do in the field and/or ways to apply the concepts to students’ own lives. For instance, in my 200-level classes, most of the writing assignments take the form of intake reports, assessment reports, and treatment plans which are modeled after real professional documents. In my General Psychology course, I have students take a half-dozen popular personality tests to see how accurate the results seem to them and discuss whether the results are consistent or not. This course also includes a comparison of psychological research reported in the popular press to the academic journal article so students can see the need to be skeptical of what they see on the news. By creating assignments which are applied and genuine to the field, I am able to enhance student engagement in the activities as well as give them a taste of what it is like to do psychology rather than learn psychology.
Just as no two relationships are the same, no two classes are the same. Each time I teach a course, it is a unique experience because the students in the room are different and the information changes as I include new research findings, readings, and personal experiences. It is critical to continually be refreshing courses for several reasons. First, it keeps the content up to date so our students stay on the cutting edge of a field which is constantly producing new discoveries. Second, it keeps me engaged with the material and prevents feelings of stagnation or boredom. Finally, staying abreast of new findings can trigger ideas for other scholarly projects for myself or for students.
Psychology is a wonderful, difficult, and rewarding topic to teach. The field is about understanding the human experience, so one cannot help but see the world differently as a result of these concepts. I push students to open themselves to new ways to approach ideas they believe themselves to have mastered and elevate critical thinking skills to become better consumers of information in the world. I am passionate about psychology and one of my primary goals is to nurture students’ preliminary interests into strong flames so they too can benefit from the intellectual and personal growth inherent in the study of psychology.