On “Experiencing Teaching”

So here I am again! What? I told you I was an infrequent blogger…

I’m still (!) working my way through the series of courses designed (I hope!) to help me become a better instructor, or at least to help me think about how I could become a better instructor.  So far so good, I like to think!   I’ve just been introduced to the third edition of “The Skillful Teacher”, Stephen’ Brookfield’s book “on technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom”, as the author puts it.  In this and upcoming posts here I’ll be commenting on a selection of parts of this book (most likely in amongst a variety of asides as I work my way through  my current course!), so without further ado…

The first chapter of Brookfield’s book, “Experiencing Teaching”, starts with the claim that “Our lives as teachers often boil down to our best attempts to muddle through the complex contexts and configurations that our classrooms represent” (p. 1)  He continues with this idea of ‘muddling through’ throughout the first chapter, and it certainly a phrase that could be used to sum up a lot of my teaching time to date!  I started teaching college-level courses fresh off of a three-year postdoc position in Europe, where I didn’t speak the local language fluently enough to teach class.  Prior to that, I’d had (what I perceived as) minimal experience directing lab classes as a grad student, but little formal training in teaching per se.  I’d just started working my way through a series of training courses, but felt woefully unprepared to handle upwards of 100 adult students.  But muddle though I did!  I continue to ‘muddle though’ teaching as I mess around with the courses I teach, tinkering with content and scheduling and instructional and assessment and evaluation techniques.  But as Brookfield also claims, although I don’t necessarily follow a proscribed set of rules for how to best teach a class, this ‘muddling’ “should not be though of as haphazard, nor as dishonorable” (p. 1).  Brookfield deals in his text with some more challenging dilemmas than most of what I’ve had to deal with so far – he talks about racially-motivated fistfights (p. 1-2) for example – while some of the other situations he mentions are eerily familiar: thought-provoking questions greeted by silence (p. 4), or blaming myself for a class session gone poorly (p. 7).  But in any case I haven’t hit upon a single “right” way to predict or reliably accommodate the differences I find between the success of different strategies that appear between classes, terms, or individual students within a class, and so I continue to muddle through as best I can.

Perhaps the thing I appreciate most about Brookfield’s latest edition of his book so far is that he seems to have sensed a strong need by fellow instructors for concrete suggestions.  I noticed that the claim he made in the second edition of his book, that “There are no seven habits of effective teaching, no five rules for pedagogic success” (2nd ed., p. 1) is missing from the third edition, while a list of “some of the most important truths I’ve established for myself about teaching” (3rd ed., p. 9) has now appeared at the end of the same chapter!  Skimming the second edition, I had been a bit worried that it would be heavy on personal opinion and light on concrete suggestions for how to test those opinions, but it seems Brookfield may have heard my complaints before I uttered them.  I look forward to reading through the rest of the text and seeing if it can at least help me coalesce and crystallize some of my own muddled thoughts and ideas into useful strategies and actions that I can put to use (or at least, to the test!) in my own classroom.



Brookfield, S. D. (2006) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.

Brookfield, S. D. (2015) The skillful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA : Jossey-Bass.


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