Some thoughts on teaching UCT students

A few weeks ago, my dad asked me this:

Hi Daughter,

Hope things are going well.

Riding back from yesterdays breakfast with [identifying details deleted to protect the otherwise insulted] I was pondering the skills of a teacher and wondering if [deleted] would be a good one. I was thinking that one
attribute of a good teacher might be the ability to see the problem thru the students view of things. That let to the thought to get your veiw of the issue and the question - are you seeing the world differently in teaching students from different cultures?

Love Dad

So you can see that spell-check culture has not been good to my dad. But more importantly, I wrote him a long email back with lots of thoughts. On 9 May. Since I haven't gotten any response from him, I posit the answer to you, dear reader (hi mom), with some minor edits:

the simple answer is that anyone can be a good teacher.

The complicated way of saying the same thing is that billions of research dollars have been devoted to studying "good teachers" and developing a generalized idea of "best practices" - and that there is no consistency of practice between one good teacher and another, and no teacher is considered good by 100% of the students they teach.

In my opinion the key attributes are to have a personal style, passion for the topic, clear oration, precise expectations, and high expectations. [deleted] already has some of these and the rest I think he will be able to learn as he goes along. He'll do fine. Let him get advice from people in his field - because a key element of a successful class is that the teacher and students share similar expectations and none of us are qualified to help him develop that sense and how to moderate expectations students have about social science classes. Suffice it to say that as soon as he steps in front of the classroom he will likely have major readjustment of what his expectations are in his role as a student - as his role as a teacher
expands. Anyway that's all good.

At first I noticed the cultural contrasts more than I do now (oh so far down the road...) but I think they just add to the spectrum of understanding/background/learningstyle/expectations that is a complex network of connections between each student, the class as a whole, the instructor, and the materials (physical and esoteric) that collectively direct the events in the classroom. Culture would be a different issue for, say, a white teacher going to an Inuit village where cultural relevancy and context needs are somewhat uniform across the student population. Here there are so many cultures coming together that between some individuals, their first common culture will be science. So I have the responsibility to initiate students to the culture and language of science asap - while still balancing the burden which is the white-male-eurocentrism of that scientific culture. One tool for balancing this is to really emphasize the dynamic nature of the culture of science, which is taught in secondary schools as a static thing! Because if the world is static and it's all whiteoldmale now, it's a totally different message than if it's dynamic, and it's all whiteoldmale now. I tell anecdotes about geologists and students I have known in the past and emphasize nationality, race, gender, language - trying to paint a picture of the changing face. Teaching students from all these backgrounds really helps me clarify for myself which elements of the culture are really elements of science discourse, and the way that the discourse manifests in different populations. For example when we're in the field and the students are discussing the geology in another language than English - Afrikaans or Sotho or Xhosa any number of languages which are shared in any small group of students - they have different analogies, turns of phrase, etc. I have always felt that a real test of a scientist is to explain ones work without the use of jargon. The proverbial "tell your grandmother what you do" test. And here we have my students, in the field, bouncing between languages which don't even have the geological jargon, sometimes inserting English words where necessary, but basically exercising the "grandmother test" on their own.

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