AAU Distinguished Teacher Award Workshop

This AAU Distinguished Teacher Award Workshop was delivered to faculty from St. Thomas University and the University of New Brunswick, at Holy Cross House, St. Thomas University, Fredericton, New Brunswick, on April 6, 1999.


I am a specialist in Spanish Peninsular Golden Age Literature. It is the area in which I did my PhD Thesis and in which I have worked for more than thirty years. I am not a specialist in teaching, I do not have any qualifications or expertise in pedagogy. While I am extremely flattered to have recently been given awards for teaching, I have not forgotten the long barren years when my work in the classroom went unrecognized. I am also completely aware that as he stands before you today this particular emperor is wearing no clothes. I ask you to realize that while I would be happy to lecture on Iterative Thematic Imagery in La Vida es Sueño or Pseudo-Autobiography and Creative Fiction in Quevedo’s Buscón or the tentative chronology of Quevedo’s poetry, I am no expert on teaching and I am most uncomfortable and very nervous in my new role of overnight expert.

Let me continue my apologia pro vita mia by stating that I can offer you no simple answers which will immediately improve your teaching. There are no gizmos, no gadgets that will change you overnight. There is no sudden gap in the clouds that allows light to break “where no light shines.” There are no easy ways.

We are individuals. We must recognize our own individuality and be proud of it. We must look within ourselves and ask ourselves what we love about our subjects, why we were first attracted to our subjects. When we have the answers to those questions we must somehow transfer that love and enthusiasm to our students. How we do that will depend entirely upon each one of us as an individual. I encourage each one of you to search within yourself, and be true to yourself and your subject. That truth to self and subject is essential. Only you can improve yourself: nobody else can do it for you.

David Roberts, one time technical director of the CRU and a very good friend of mine, used to say that coaches came to national level rugby workshops in Ottawa not to learn new material, but “To have their instincts and practices confirmed.” I hope that this is true of most of you here today. I can offer you very little that is new. However, this session will, I hope, confirm you in your knowledge. “I knew that!” You will say or “That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking!” I offer you not new things, but confirmation! If you are lucky, at this workshop today you may discover one item, one little clue, that will assist you in the puzzle of how to reach your own full ability as an excellent teacher. These then are your tasks for today: to confirm your own ability, and to find one little clue that will help you improve yourself.

I hasten to add that the one little clue doesn’t have to come from me. It may come from the person sitting next to you, it may come in the formal or informal sessions, or in the lunch break, or while walking back to your office afterwards. If light does break, even if only for one of you, then I will be delighted and this workshop will have been a success.

One further task that lies before you today is to realize that in teaching workshops like these, we are opening new dialogues and continuing old discussions. It is really important for the dialogs you start here today to continue outside this room long after you leave this workshop. Do not relinquish todays’discourse merely because you are no longer bounded by these four walls. Keep the faith and continue talking to each other and keep asking questions.

Research and Teaching

This year for the first time since 1994, I am actually teaching a course in Golden Age Spanish Literature, the area in which I specialize. As a result, for the first time in five years, in the upper level courses, my teaching and my specialized research areas are actually related. However, in three of my other courses, Beginning Spanish, Intermediate Grammar, and Introduction to Translation, I am teaching the old material in the old way for the thirty third year since I came to Canada, and there is very little innovation in what I do though I have tried to keep up to date with the new trends and have thus made several changes in how I actually get things done.

Task # 1: So here is your first task for today: how do you integrate your research into your teaching? Can you integrate research into all your courses or only into some? How do you maintain your enthusiasm in those Introductory courses which you teach every year? By extension, as you grow older and leave graduate school further and further behind, how do you maintain the spirit of excitement with retirement looming and pension plan investigation the most serious research to which you can commit yourself? Take two minutes. Talk about this with your neighbours.

Looking at the rest of your life!

The French playwright, Molière, once said of the material that he borrowed for his plays: “Je le prends où je le trouve,” meaning “I take it from wherever I find it.” At a Level 1 rugby clinic in 1976, I discovered that whereas I was coaching in the old way, 1 rugby ball between 40 players, each one of whom touched the ball for perhaps a half minute in a two hour coaching session; the new methods of coaching shared 10 rugby balls between the same forty players, all divided now into groups of 4. Small work groups increased ball handling and decision making skills enormously. Each player was now handling the ball for 15 to twenty minutes each practice and this revolutionized the game of rugby.

Within a week of this particular rugby clinic, the students in my Spanish language classes were divided into groups of four and were doing group work. I have worked with small groups now for 23 years. The point is, not that I work with small groups, but that I applied an idea from sport coaching to a teaching situation (there are enormous parallels between teaching and coaching), and I started small group work, on my own, LONG BEFORE it became an accepted and recognized teaching method in large language classes!

A second example from rugby coaching: the three elements of a good rugby training session are: ACTIVITY, ENJOYMENT, PURPOSE. Each class that we teach should involve those three elements, for remember another rugby slogan: “If there’s no fun in it, there’s no future.” The level one rugby manual also recommends this approach to coaching: “First demonstrate the skill you want to teach. Then have the players perform the skill slowly. Speed up their execution of the skill. Correct and teach when necessary.”

I will give you a third example drawn from rugby and applied to teaching: how do you get players to relax at a national championship the night before the big event? Well: there are a series of relaxing exercises, mental and physical, that can be used. How do you get students to relax the night before a big examination? Well: believe it or not, exactly the same series of relaxation and mental exercises can be taught and used! In Humanities 101, two years ago, I taught pre-examination relaxation and concentration exercises as a part of the course. I also showed students several ways of relaxing and renewing concentration during exams. These relaxation and concentration techniques were drawn from sport. Attitudes towards examinations, and hence results, improved dramatically for that group of students.

TASK 2: What is there in your non-teaching life that you can use as a classroom teaching method? This may be take different forms: something physical, a mental exercise, deep breathing from yoga, a theme, a discussion topic, a project, or a focal point for an interest group? Take two minutes now and jot down some ideas.

Peer Assistance and Mentoring:

When I became a Teaching Assistant at the University of Toronto, I was paired with a senior faculty member, Dr. Keith Ellis, whose job was to act as a faculty mentor, to observe me regularly in class, and to work with me on improving my teaching. Please note that he did not assess me or evaluate me; nor did he ask the Administration to take disciplinary action every time I made a mistake. Keith visited my class once a week during my first month of teaching; once every two weeks in my second month; and, in the third month, he visited me for one last time and declared me ready to fly on my own.

Each visit was followed by a session in the coffee shop during which, over coffee, I received a commentary on my class behavior, a post-class discussion based on observations, an analysis of the lesson plan, the nature and timing of the exercises, a commentary on how certain topics, drills, or exercises might have been handled differently, and so on. Keith also encouraged me, as I am encouraging you, to look beyond the classroom for examples of good teaching skills that might be beneficial to me. I should add that I called Keith, my cooperating teacher, on the day I received my AAU teaching award and I thanked him for the way he had prepared me, so long ago (33 years to be exact!), for my life’s work.

Now that accountability has become such a buzz word, I have been invited to participate in Paired Peer Assistance and Mentor Partnerships on several occasions over the last five years, observing, debating, cooperating, sharing, and generally helping out. Such Paired Peer Assistance Projects demand trust in the paired partner and respect within the pairing team. However, please note that confidentiality is of prime importance. Trust and sharing cannot flourish if personnel and employment decisions, usually administration driven, rest on the results.

Teachers involved in a paired peer assistance or mentor relationship must be aware of the objectives they wish to achieve. Those objectives must be agreed upon in advance. They should be limited at first and should grow slowly in scope as trust and confidence grows. People who seek help, even professionals like ourselves, are extremely vulnerable at such moments. Thus an awareness of objectives is essential. It is also wise to begin by observing strengths, and only when trust and confidence is established, to move on to weaknesses.

TASK 3: How many of your immediate colleagues or close friends would you be willing to partner in a Paired Peer Assistance Exercise involving in-class observation? Write down the names of colleagues, they don’t have to be in your own field, whom you would respect and trust to do a useful job. What areas of strengths would you like to see observed by a trusted friend or colleague? After due consideration of method, colleague, and prior comments, what areas of weakness do you see in your teaching that you would be willing to work on with a mentor?


If there are no names before you, if there is nobody whom you would trust, then you may be suffering from that isolation problem which is rapidly becoming so common in our universities. Break out! Try talking with your Learning and Teaching Development Officer or with a Guidance Professional from your own Faculty of Education. At St. Thomas University our Learning and Teaching Development Committee is currently working on designing such system of support for younger faculty and also for those who need some help in reigniting the spark! Incidentally, if there are absolutely no weaknesses at all at all in your teaching, you should be giving this lecture. Not me.

Some Simple Suggestions:

There are some things we can change. What are they? We can change ourselves on a very personal level: what we wear, how we stand, where we stand, how we move, how we use space, our gestures (facial and hands), the way we write on the board etc. If we change these small things, we can change our teaching and the way we cope with the small world of our classroom. In order to change the little world of professor Such and Such we must return to basics. Let us look for a moment at some things we can control!

Keith Ellis gave me many of the following tips at the beginning of my teaching career. I hope these will be a confirmation of the things we do.

I hope that none of this is news to you! I hope when I am saying these things, I am merely giving you “confirmation of your own teaching ability.” Interestingly enough, most of these points, and many others, can be found in Alan Gedalof’s book Teaching Large Classes. I strongly recommend this publication to all whose peace of mind is threatened by the increasing numbers of students whom they teach.

TASK 4: We have outlined several ideas on teaching. Write down the sort of tips (a) you wish you had received as a beginning teacher; and (b) that, as a mentor, you would pass on to a young teacher in your field.

The Learner Centered Classroom:

The Learner Centered Classroom has come under much scrutiny recently. How can we make our own classrooms learner centered? Here are three things that I have been doing over the last 5 years.

Regular Student Surveys

I survey the students in all of my classes at least once every two weeks. Sometimes there is an informal verbal survey of selected students (a different group each time) during or after every class. Individual class surveys of selected groups allows me to have an intimate knowledge of how the class is progressing. It also permits the students to have immediate input into the class. When the students see that things change as we talk about them, then there is a greater feeling of satisfaction, a feeling of student empowerment, a greater sense of active participation, and students feel that they have a hands on interactive ownership both of the class and of the learning process. This leads smoothly into LIFE LONG LEARNING.

Simple Written Survey:

1. What is going right for you?
2. What is going wrong for you?
3. Changes we need to make.
4. Other comments.

The Do It Yourself Designer Marking Scheme:

One point of dissatisfaction has always been (and probably always will be) the marking scheme. Quite simply, for 90% of the school year, we are the students’ confidant and best friend; then suddenly, overnight, we become Judge, Jury, and Executioner. In England and at the University of Toronto, this awkward situation was avoided when Departments set the final examination for all multi-sectioned courses. Then the examinations were objective, they could not be handed out in advance by the individual professor, and students could not appeal to the kinder instincts of an individual professor in cases of hardship.

At our smaller universities, we are sometimes too close to our students. As a result, marking is more subjective and students are able to exploit our kinder instincts. In many cases, scholarships, alternate programs, university and summer employment, and graduate school depend upon grades. Sometimes, our students see it as our task to give them those grades, irrespective of the standards they have achieved to earn them.

In the absence of objective marking schemes and cross department standards (I will not talk at this stage of Cross Canadian Equality and Competitiveness), we tend to establish more subjective testing forms. In fact, in my classes this year, we have talked about various learning styles and we have elaborated various alternate forms of assessment. This year I am using a student designed marking scheme in each of my classes.

How does this work? Students may plan their own marking scheme by choosing the categories in which they will receive marks. There are certain prerequisites. For example, every student must sit a minimum of 3 of the 5 scheduled in-class tests at 20% each. They can then choose to complete their 100% in any way they wish. Here are some options:

1 FINAL EXAM (to count for 20%, 40% or 60% at the students choice)

5 Tests (students may take as many as they want at 20% each)

3 written reports (students may do up to 3 at 20% each)

2 projects (students may do one or two projects with a value of 20% each; this project must be planned with the professor. A minimum of 4 weeks work must go into each project.)

Attendance: 20% (5% deducted for every class missed)


1. Default Option: Do all the work. Your best five marks count.

2. Testing Option: Take all five class tests for a total of 100%.

3. Make Up Options: Missed a test or want to improve your marks? Take the final examination (it can count for 20% or 40% or 60%), or complete a project.

4. Attendance Option: You haven’t missed a class? Take the attendance option.

5. Creative Option: You like working creatively on your own? Do the Project Option. And remember you can do one project for 20% or two projects for 40%. And Yes! Building a webpage for in Spanish is a definite option!

6. Tape Recording: You like oral work? Use your project option to record an audio tape or make a video tape and show me the video.

7. MIX AND MATCH: Design your own marking scheme from the above options. Marking schemes must be agreed upon mutually between student and teacher. They must be approved within the first 4 weeks of class.

TASK 5: Marking Scheme: Can you offer a student designed marking scheme in your course? If not, why not? If you can, how would you design it? Take two minutes to jot down the outline for a student designed marking scheme that allows for reasonable choice, options that allow students the opportunity to go outside the classroom and into the real world, and a fit between learning styles and type of work.

Breaking Down the Walls: Student Designed Projects

As you can see from the above, in addition to designing their own marking schemes, I have encouraged students to go outside the classroom walls, to apply their learning to their real lives, and to design their own projects. Here are some examples from which students may choose to match their out of class work with their particular learning styles.

1. Computer Laboratory;
2. Cassette Tapes;
3. Workbook;
4. Monitors;
5. Spanish Videos;
6. Spanish Music;
7. World Wide Web;
8. Chat rooms / newsgroups / webpage;
9: Tutors;
10. E-mail;
11. Book read;
12. OTHER: must be prof. approved.

TASK 6: Student Projects: Can you offer student designed projects in your course? If not, why not? If you can, how would you allow the students to design them? Take two minutes to jot down a student designed project scheme that allows students to take advantage of their best learning skills and allows them to go outside the classroom into the real world. Can you help them fit such projects into a variety of student learning styles?

Designing Different Examinations:

Once the idea of individual course design is accepted, then the next question is obvious: can we design different styles of examinations for different learning styles? In some courses I often offer three different types of tests for each testing period and the students can choose which they will do: (a) take home test based on the book; (b) take home test based on new exercises (usually from the workbook) that relate to the material we are learning; (c) standard in class test designed around the material that we are covering at the time. I have also used standard commercial test banks, but feel that the individual tests, written to my own teaching foibles, are a fairer match for testing the students’ learning.

TASK 7: Designer Exams: How many different types of learning style can you identify in your first year students? Can you design different examinations to accomodate these various learning styles?

On campus awareness

As teachers, we should be aware of the controversial issues which cross the university campus from time to time. We should think out, in advance, how to respond to one of these issues should it arise in our classrooms. issues may run from politically (in)correct terminology, to student (or faculty!) dress, to various forms of bigotry. How should we handle these issues?

TASK 8: are there any terms that are politically sensitive on your campus? Are there attitudes (positive or negative) of which you should be aware?

Teaching across the curriculum

I have always been interested in teaching across the curriculum and, particularly since working in Oaxaca, I have developed new methods and new ways of seeing old subjects. Courses that I have taught outside my specialist field, include:

TASK 9: are there alternative courses that you can teach that will throw new light on your current teaching?

A cultural aside

Eye Contact -- some cultures prefer to make eye contact in a class room situation; some don’t. For some cultures, eye contact may be aggressive; for others, it may be forbidden between members of the opposite sex. There are other cultural differences that appear in the classroom. For example, some students whom I taught in Oaxaca, Mexico, paused for a long time (sometimes for as much as twenty or thirty seconds) before answering a question; initially, I was in a rush for quick answers. Problem: I just didn't understand the other system and the cultural difference had to be explained to me.

TASK 10: Are different cultures represented in the classroom? Are you aware of any cultural differences, especially in your own classroom, that may effect the facilitator / learner relationship?


I will not bring closure to this debate. It is an ongoing one and I encourage everyone to continue thinking and talking together about their teaching. Remember: we must never, never stop learning about ourselves, our students, and this wonderful world in which we live.

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