Teaching Expertise Worth Striving For

By Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen

Hilary Harper-Wilcoxen is the Founder of Bear Pond Learning, a nonprofit in Bridgton, ME.

This blog was inspired by the workshop Hilary presented at this year’s National College Transition Network Conference in Cambridge, MA from November 12-14, “Professor-Proofing our Teaching”.


Professors are smart. They have to be. After all, they are the expert in the classroom. But, as comedian Chad Daniels says, “My wife has a Ph.D…but not in everything.”

The troubling fact is that if you ask almost anyone about their experience in college and their professors’ ability to teach they will nod knowingly and say, “I had one or two great ones. The rest? Not so much.”

Why is that? Here are two possible explanations:

  1. Professors are not taught to teach. Instead, they are taught, and encouraged to get better at what they are already good at – their discipline.
  2. Professors are not rewarded for putting the needed effort into becoming great teachers. All the brownie points (like promotions and tenure) go to those who continue to grow their expertise, not to those who focus on a skill they were never taught – how to effectively share that expertise with students.

Until the brownie points go to the best teachers the motivation to improve our teaching has to be intrinsic. For me it was an uneasy feeling that, although I knew what to teach, I didn’t really know how to teach it. I think I assumed that someday someone would show up and tell me exactly how to help students who couldn’t write, how to grade papers fairly, how to develop effective course curriculum. That day never came.

Our epiphanies happen when we are ready to accept them. My efforts to improve my teaching brought me to Dr. Eric Mazur from Harvard University, who said, “I never asked myself, ‘How am I going to teach?’ It was clear, I was going to lecture. I had learned by listening to lectures.” Dr. Mazur goes on to show us how his success as an instructor was really an “illusion” that one day was shattered. I had been teaching long enough to realize that, like Mazur, my students were not retaining the knowledge I thought they had obtained. Why? Because they hadn’t really understood it! I knew by then that you had to connect new knowledge with prior knowledge for the students to understand. I just didn’t know how to do that.

I had been directed to Mazur’s video by Jay McTighe, author of Understanding by Design (UbD), and after watching it I became even more committed to using the principles of UbD and Mazur’s Peer Instruction in my classroom.

Neither method or framework was a perfect fit, so I went about picking and choosing what worked for my department, my students, and my discipline. It was frustrating, exhilarating, and ultimately, transformative.

Here are some take-aways from my work that I hope will be helpful:

  1. Reduce content to what is essential for understanding. This is a core UbD principle and one of the first things I tackled as a new UbD adopter. It required me to distill my course (which spanned 2,500 years of dance history) down to one Big Idea. Then, I worked on developing an “essential question” or EQ for the entire course and, later, for my units. The EQ I finally decided on was, “Why do people dance?” It brought focus and clarity to everything else I did, and allowed the students to have an anchor, a question they could keep going back to as they waded through all the information. True, it is very hard to delete content that we love as experts. It is easier if we ask ourselves honestly, “Is this essential and, if so, does it help answer or enrich the EQ?”
  2. Design your classes to give greater student agency. What does that mean, exactly? Well, for me it meant giving up some control. To design homework and projects (connected somehow to the EQ) that require students to practice what they will need in the 21st century. Skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking; and to do it with as little direction from me as I could muster. I found that if I had the Big Idea and EQ in mind it was a lot easier to create experiential learning projects and assignments that incorporated the material we had to cover. That, in turn, allowed my students to create something that was truly theirs, but which incorporated the essential knowledge we were working on. I found that agency=engagement in almost every class I taught. It’s a lot messier than lecturing or small group discussions, but it is well worth the mess.
 Here are some more ideas on student agency.
  3. Bias. How a seemingly ugly word can help us. A master kindergarten teacher I know, Patty Poulin, says this about bias, “You have to know you have it, or you can’t do anything about it. And everyone has it.” But what, exactly, is it? There are a number of definitions, but I find the most useful one as a teacher is, anything that causes me to decide something, based on a stereotype and without the facts, that might affect how I treat my students.

Whenever the topic comes up I am reminded, shamefully, of a time when I almost failed a student. This particular freshman kept arriving late and unprepared for my class. She missed a scheduled meeting and did almost no work. When I finally got her to my office she broke down in tears. She told me that she had to leave school because of a family situation. All I could do at that point was tell her I was sorry and wish her well. My bias — seeing her as a disinterested freshman who was lazy and irresponsible— had not done either of us any favors. It was a stark lesson for me, and one I never forgot. It was my job to make the effort, to seek to understand, but I had been more concerned with papers and attitude than with her.

My elementary school colleagues understand this. They are trained educators, and they have a name for it — Social Emotional Learning, or SEL. We need to pay attention to the current conversation regarding best practices. David Gooblar states in his article, Yes, You Have Implicit Biases, Too that we can become “conscious of the existence of implicit biases, and the probability that you yourself might be influenced by them, before you can do anything about them.”

I guess Patty knew what she was talking about.

As higher ed educators we still need to seek to understand in order to develop empathy. We all know that the demands of time, burn out, and personal needs can drop empathy and listening to the bottom of our list, but we have to challenge that. Our students really are more important than our discipline, our lesson plan, or our biases. If we are going to reach them we need to “learn from each other’s lived experiences.” (Beegle, 2007)

Learn, and then put what we learn back into our meetings with students, our classes, and our sense of who we are and why we wanted to teach in the first place. My superintendent, Kevin Richard describes the work we are all here to do, “To empower our students to get the skills they need to fix their own problems.”

Now that’s expertise worth striving for.


Beegle, D. M. (2007). See poverty…be the difference! Discover the missing pieces for helping people move out of poverty.  Tigard, OR: Communication Across Barriers, Inc.

Gooblar, D. (2017, November 20). Yes, you have implicit biases, too. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved December 27, 2018, from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Yes-You-Have-Implicit-Biases/241797

One thought on “Teaching Expertise Worth Striving For”

  1. When we meet college professors, secondary school or adult secondary education teachers, we typically ask what they teach. Not a bad question, if followed by “Tell me about the students you teach” and then, if they answer something like “Freshmen and Sophomores” a tougher follow-up question, “What do you know about your students?” That’s a possible EQ for secondary and post-secondary instructor professional development. It may lead to fascinating and controversial questions like “What do we need to know about our students?”

    Thanks for this refreshing and insightful article. It’s right on target.

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