Oct. 05, 2018 by Jennifer Hofmann

Jen HofmannAvoiding the Teaching Trap

For those of us with busy teaching schedules, packed social calendars, and an endless to-do list, we often get bogged down into a rut. We teach the same classes over and over with little variation from year to year, often feeling like we are on autopilot. One of the major pitfalls associated with excessive busyness is that we tend to forget what it’s like to be the student, facing this material with fresh and eager eyes and minds. So, how do we avoid this teaching trap at CTX? How do we prevent our material and our teaching philosophy from turning stale and lifeless? Often times, it takes putting the shoe on the other foot and becoming the student again, at least for a little while. This summer I had that chance, having a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a student studying Conservation Paleoecology at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California. In other words, I spent an amazing month covered in tar, digging up Ice Age fossils, and learning how to clean, repair, identify and catalog them for future scientific study. I also spent an inordinate amount of time explaining to the public that “No, we don’t find dinosaurs at La Brea. You’re off by about 65 million years.” By the end of the summer and thanks to the release of Jurassic World 2, I almost just gave up and started agreeing with my family and friends that I spent my summer at Jurassic Park.
How did this opportunity come about, you may ask? Well, many things aligned at the right time in order for this to happen. First, the administration at CTX has made a pointed effort the past few years to set aside funding for Professional Development for all faculty to stay current in their field. The flexibility provided by these funds was essential for my experience. Second, the renewed focus on Concordia’s Friesenhahn Cave, a paleontological treasure gifted to the university in 1997, brought us a visit from the new curator of The La Brea Tar Pits last December. Dr. Lindsey’s interest in the Ice Age fossils contained within the cave lead to a discussion of future collaborations between La Brea and CTX and she extended the invitation for me to join her for the first Fossil School in La Brea’s long history. As a Developmental Vascular Biologist by training, I initially felt completely out of my depth studying the flora and fauna of mostly extinct ecosystems. However, we are always asking our students to challenge themselves, to take chances and to make the most of their opportunities. What kind of teacher would I be if I didn’t live that out in my own life? Thus, I decided to take the leap and had one of the best experiences of my life.
For four weeks I was a student again, experiencing the highs and lows of research, sitting in a classroom learning new information and techniques, digging out fossils from giant ground sloths and saber-toothed cats, going out into the field, writing a research proposal and getting VERY dirty. This experience reawakened that love of learning, opened doors for further collaborations, and gave me so many new ideas to bring into the classroom. It also reminded me to be patient, to be clear with directions, to challenge students with new ideas and new takes on old ideas, and, most of all, to be passionate about learning. It literally took me wading through tar pits to get out of that teaching rut and I would encourage all of you to take that leap of faith and put yourselves back in the role of the student every once in a while in order to get a fresh perspective.

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