It's cold outside…your comfort zone

Have you had to teach outside of your comfort zone? I have. When I began teaching at Taylor’s College, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in April, 1986(!), I was thrown off the deep end. Fresh out of teachers college, I was assigned senior calculus and chemistry classes at a high-level school whose mission was to prepare matriculating students for university study abroad. The school was semestered; we taught 4 seventy-minute periods per day, in a school day that ran from 9 am to 6 pm.

The chemistry was manageable, but the calculus nearly put me under. I never claimed to be a mathematician. I made it through second year calculus with hard work, not talent. Aside from the textbook, all I had was a study guide for first-year calculus from the University of Toronto bookstore, and the most thorough, excellent notes that I have ever seen, which were left by a previous teacher. In those pre-internet days, these were my only help — there was no one at the school to whom I could turn.

Fast forward quite a few years — I experienced the same with Grade 10 Science. While I was blessed with fabulous students, I couldn’t help but know that I short-changed them — big time — on the biology. I was literally one page ahead of the class, hoping that no interesting questions would be asked. Unfortunately for me, there were plenty. I lost count of the number of consultations I had with our more-than-patient resident biologists. Without their mentoring, things could have been a lot worse.

A colleague recently told me that her daughter’s entire grade 9 science class could be characterized by assigned textbook reading and seatwork. Labs are pretty much non-existent. The teacher also teaches history.

My good friend David Greisman teaches chemistry — but his back-ground is in social science. David rose to the challenge of teaching outside his comfort zone through professional development courses, with the help of his colleagues, solid hard work, and with a dedication to success.

For many reasons, teachers may need to teach outside of their area of expertise. While mentorship by an experienced colleague is more than valuable, we can improve things by offering PD courses geared specifically to the successful teaching of one course. Not online, but real live classes, with an experienced and successful teacher at the helm. One who takes his or her charges through a course from start to finish — lessons, demonstrations, assignments, labs, possible questions and answers, evaluations and plenty of rock-solid information and teaching strategies. Participants would leave with a head — and a USB stick — full of the best materials to successfully deliver a course. Loosey-goosey PD workshops about the latest assessment strategies or the use of iPads in the classroom is fine, but students — as well as parents, post-secondary institutions and employers — demand experts at the front of the room, regardless of their educational background.