When courage isn't enough

When courage isn't enough

Learning takes courage and so does teaching, because good teaching is really just being a learner who is generous. But sometimes, good teaching takes more than just courage.

Sometimes it takes cover. You might be in a position where doing what you know to be pedagogically right might get you fired. For example, if you're using active learning (and implementing it well) but students complain that you "aren't teaching the class", and the nature of your position puts you at the mercy of that pushback. What then? It doesn't mean that you don't use active learning, because we know what the science says about active learning and it would be unethical to withhold active learning when we know it helps students. Choosing expedience over ethics is cowardice. But that doesn't make it an easy choice, and it doesn't make repercussions go away.

In this case, what you really need is a person who can provide cover for you. A person in some kind of authority or leadership position above you, who can trust to have your back if you take risks that are reasonable, well-thought out, and have the best interests of students in mind, but then don't work out as planned. Teaching is a creative act, and creative acts sometimes don't work out. In fact, if you're really teaching from a place of heart and service, it definitely won't work out in some cases. When (not if) this happens, courage is necessary but not always sufficient. You need someone -- a department chair, a dean, a vice-president -- who will provide you with a safe space to make mistakes and go on defense for you if necessary.

This is where courage shifts to the people in those positions. The chairs, deans, VPs and so on have to lead with courage and provide that cover for instructors – especially untenured or contingent faculty – who are trying to do the right things, even if it leads to bad press. The provision of this cover – giving faculty a safe space to make mistakes – is the administrative version of teaching. It's analogous to the professor providing an environment for students where it's safe for them to make mistakes. Both require courage. We need more courageous administrators.

But when you can't rely on cover, teaching with courage takes carefulness. Let's say you're an untenured faculty member given an important introductory level class to teach, and you want to use peer instruction instead of lecture. That's great, because peer instruction is a technique that time and again has been shown to be "safe and effective" in large lecture courses. But it may not work out, and you may not be fortunate enough to have a department chair willing to run interference for you if things go south. So what do you do?

The uncourageous thing to do is revert back to pure lecture in order to preserve yourself for tenure, at which point (you swear) that you will go all-in on peer instruction and everything else. But this is not only not courageous, it's not realistic. Most people who say this (e.g. "Flipped learning is something I'll do when I'm tenured") don't end up doing anything different once they are tenured. Most end up like the person who swears they'll start the diet tomorrow while shoving another donut in their mouth. They don't do it because if they really meant it, they'd be doing it already, at least in some small way. It's just another form of expedience over ethics.

Instead, what's not only courageous but also smart in that situation is to take small steps forward when and where you can. If you're really that concerned about student pushback on peer instruction, do it once to see how it goes. Then ask your students how it went, and listen to what they say. Then try it once again, iterating on the results. If students really hate it, you can stop doing it for now and read up on implementation, to see if there's something you were missing; students will at least appreciate that you listened to what they had to say. Simply trying nothing when you know trying something would help your students is just giving in to fear, or laziness, or both.

But if my experience is like everyone else's, a small stepwise introduction of something well-intentioned and effective in general tends to be effective in particular, and students may get more out of it than you expect. Students need our courage right now and they are actively looking for it. And I think they appreciate it when they see it.

The one thing we're not allowed to do in these times, or ever, is to self-reject by telling ourselves that stepping out and trying something that might be good for students isn't something we can do because we're untenured, contingent, "too busy", etc. We can and we must.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.