The lives of university faculty are busy; professors must be strategic about how they balance valuable time between research, service, teaching and family. Regrettably, the current institutional reward structure for the continued improvement of teaching lags far behind those for research and service. And yet, the classroom is a university’s key point of contact with students. Classrooms are that rare place where large groups of students voluntarily and regularly gather…to learn. It is the place where we as academics and social agents have immediate access and opportunity to influence thousands of peoples’ attitudes, perceptions and understandings.
I want to be very clear here…we need rewards for the process of improving…not just summative awards for excellence. Teaching is a complex constellation of skills that must be continually shaped, honed, and catered to each group of students, delivery method, course level, classroom, available technology, etc. etc. Dynamic teaching requires both planned and on-the-spot complex problem solving. Just as an engineer, in the midst of building a well-designed bridge discovers unpredicted complications, the university professor may be in the midst of implementing a technical course only to discover, (through a formative assessment) that many students are not making the conceptual “grounding” necessary to proceed. Just as the civil engineer consults colleagues and research to determine how best to proceed with the construction of the bridge, the professor must consult research and colleagues to determine how best to support students in their intellectual constructions of knowledge.
When faculty are brilliant in the classroom our students not only learn, but also become inspired…and are more inclined to stay until graduation. I urge public university communities to reevaluate the importance of teaching excellence and create clear and tangible rewards for faculty who seek to improve their teaching.
Teaching is, after all, one, if not the primary purpose for the existence of public universities.