Teach your teachers well

Posted on: 11/6/2013; Updated on: 2/7/2014
By Craig Brandhorst, 803-777-3681

Christy Friend was a 24-year-old graduate student the first time she stepped into a classroom as a teacher. A psychology major as an undergraduate, she’d toyed with a few different career paths before entering the master’s program in English at the University of Oklahoma, but she’d always excelled as a student and figured teaching writing would come just as easily.

“They gave me a textbook, we had a two-day orientation and I made a lesson plan that went something like, ‘Pass out textbook, discuss chapter one,’ ” she recalls with a laugh. “So we get five minutes into the class, I’ve told them a little about chapter one, and I say, ‘Okay, well, let me hear your thoughts.’ Dead silence. And I look up at the clock and think, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got 38 minutes to fill and I’m at the end of my lesson plan!’ I had no idea what I was going to do next.”

Now the director of USC’s Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) and a veteran researcher and instructor in the field of rhetoric and composition, Friend credits that early classroom experience for the perspective and empathy she’s drawn on as she has helped a generation of first-time writing teachers find their footing.

“That was the moment when I realized that teaching is this intellectually complex activity,” she says. “The next day I had to sort of crawl into my classroom and do a little bit better by my students. And I got a lot better just by trial and error that first semester. That was the real start of my fascination with how learning happens in a classroom.”

Teaching writ large

After 16 years in USC’s English department — and several at the helm of the department’s English 101 and 102 programs — Friend began a three-year term at the Center for Teaching Excellence in January. But while she still leverages her experience helping graduate students and faculty become better teachers of writing, particularly through workshops and orientation sessions for new faculty and graduate teaching assistants, the new position also allows her to a have a wider reach.

"Some of the faculty who participate in our programs are just beginning their careers, but many are internationally-recognized experts in their fields and seasoned teachers. So I would never for a moment pretend that I — or CTE — is an expert on every area or can answer every question about teaching,” she says with the same humility that helped her build rapport with her first class back in graduate school. “What we can do is try to contribute to a campus environment that cultivates good teaching. It’s a process that never stops.”

That environment is critical, she says, not only for the university and its mission but also for new teachers, many of whom begin graduate teaching assistantships having little or no classroom teaching experience.

“Research tells us that an awful lot people who want a career in teaching burn out within a few years, and if you feel that you don’t have supportive colleagues, if you don’t feel like you have mentors in your corner, it’s easy to get overworked and overburdened,” she says. “In my view, the CTE's role is as much about cultivating that strong, supportive mentoring community as about providing information about best practices and pedagogy. Both are important, but I think a lot of times the community piece is less visible.”

A changing landscape

Through orientations and training sessions for new faculty and graduate teaching assistants, workshops, grant programs and other resources, the Center for Teaching Excellence has established itself as a go-to place for teachers looking to improve their game. And as the higher education landscape has evolved in recent years, so too has the center, which also boasts a team of instructional designers to help faculty transform traditional courses for the Web.

“One big thing we work on is helping faculty members who are starting to put their courses online,” says Friend. “And that’s something I’ve personally had to adapt to in a hurry. Some days, I feel like I’m back at the University of Oklahoma, and I come in and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot more complicated than I thought it was,’ but there’s also that excitement of thinking about teaching and pedagogy in new ways.”

As an example, Friend cites a recent Center of Teaching Excellence workshop in which faculty got to experiment with a 3-D printer and an upcoming workshop focused on free applications teachers can use to make their jobs easier and their teaching more effective.

"Students are always changing, technology is always changing, the institution is itself always changing," says Friend. "If we're going to make online education work in ways that are compatible with good teaching and quality learning, and that foster that community that's so important at a university, we've got to jump in with both feet."


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