On the joy of teaching

Charles L. Brewer, Professor of Psychology in Furman University, is a celebrated teacher. So celebrated is he that the American Psychological Foundation offers the annual Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. I found recent mention of him while browsing the blog of Ferdinand von Prondzynski. No, he’s not a Russian aristocrat (as far as I know), but is the newish Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, having spent a decade as President of Dublin City University.

Ferdinand (Professor von Prondynski to you) alerted me to an apparently well know talk by Prof. Brewer concerning ‘The Joy of Teaching‘. It’s worth reading, though I’ll give you the highlights here in case you’re pressed for time.

Yes, Brewer emphasised the passion that’s a prerequisite to joyous teaching, but he also outlined his previously presented ‘Brewer’s Ten Commandments for Beginning Teachers’. They comprise an convincing list, which can be summarised as:

The First Commandment: Be sure about your educational goals and make sure your students are clear about them. OK, a standard exhortation, but are all beginning teachers made aware of its necessity?

The Second Commandment: Know the relevant facts, but go beyond the facts. This is not advice to add facts that might not be generally known, but a reminder that the understanding of concepts transcends the memorisation of facts. Brewer quotes Alfred North Whitehead, who suggested that “the function of a university is to enable you to shed details in favour of principles.”

The Third Commandment: Be willing to say “I don’t know,” but strive always to decrease the frequency with which you must do so. And this one is related to a specific joy of teaching; the knowledge that ‘for every complex question, there is a simple answer—and it is wrong’.

The Fourth Commandment: In all your speaking and writing, strive for clarity, conciseness, and felicity of expression. There’s a word you don’t see often these days, apart from its use as a female name (including my daughter): ‘felicity’. The associated joy of teaching – ‘read good writing and to write good reading’.

IMG_2962The Fifth Commandment: For all your learning and teaching, develop a passion that approaches religious fervor. Does this look passionate enough?

The Sixth Commandment: Be fair and friendly with all your students but familiar with none of them. Brewer skewers this one with the salutary tale from the 12th century of Abelard and Heloise. A sad and sorry story indeed, involving castration and a nunnery, and we all know of more recent incidents which have brought grief both personally and professionally to participants.

The Seventh Commandment: Maintain appropriately rigorous academic standards, despite the trend toward grade inflation that is a national travesty. Now this commandment was first penned back in 1982, so current concerns in this area are by no means new. And has the national travesty gone international?

The Eighth Commandment: Maintain and cherish ties with colleagues of all ages and who have widely different backgrounds. The notion of the invigorating effects of the machinations within the academic community are clearly implicit in this one.

The Ninth Commandment: John Dewey suggested that the most important thing that students can develop is the desire to go on learning. Whew – it took a while, but learning eventually appears on the list, and it’s a highly appropriate admonition. As Brewer notes, there is great joy in inspiring ‘students to be independent learners and critical thinkers for as long as they live’.

The Tenth Commandment: Be patient. With whom? Both your students and yourself, for you ‘must be willing to work hard for intangible rewards that may not come until many years after students graduate’.

I’ll leave it to Brewer to have the last word on this topic:

‘But the real reason for teaching is to make a difference—to be honorable . . ., to be competent . . ., to be responsible . . ., to be productive . . . , and to be unselfish but proud. Teaching is not a profession; teaching is a calling—delightful, invigorating, unfathomable, frustrating, passionate, precious, and sacred. Good teachers stretch the mind and they stretch the heart. I hope that the world will be a little better place because I made a difference to somebody—and that’s what teaching is all about.’

2 thoughts on “On the joy of teaching

  1. Thanks David for the beautiful posting. It gave me a good reason why I am so passionate about teaching and enjoy it. It was great to see your photo, too. Cheers!!

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