The best teaching advice anyone ever gave me…

…was given to me at fifteen, by my parish minister. And the second-most useful advice I took into the classroom with me was given to me at eighteen by a church youth camp leader.

I was lucky enough last year to be assigned to tutor on a course where the course coordinator had a heavy influence on tutorial structure: most of the semester he gave us complete scripts for the lesson, went over the answers with us, and even included jokes in our weekly handouts. Being me, of course, I took these scripts and bashed them about and added 100% more Harry Potter references,1 but it was incredibly useful to have that close level of supervision when teaching for the first time. For one reason or another I wasn’t able to attend the non-compulsory tutor training course that semester (I made it up this semester), so aside from the coordinator’s input, I relied heavily on bits and pieces of advice and skills I’d picked up in non-academic environments along the way. Which turned out to be mostly church.

The most useful piece of advice which was given to me was this: no one pays attention for more than ten minutes. Fifteen if you’re lucky.

There were citations involved, which I can’t remember now – it had apparently been a key part of my minister’s preaching training in theological college, and she was then passing it on to myself and a few others as she was training us up to lead services on occasion. I happen to know this is context-dependent: I used to go to camps which had half-hour or even hour-long lessons built into the worship program, and of course, at the time I was doing the HSC and I’ve since acquired a BA, mostly by means of paying attention to someone talking for hour-long blocks of time. So it can be done!

Nevertheless, when I got into tutorials, I could *see* students switching off after about fifteen minutes. Many of the lesson plans I was given were already broken down into small chunks, which was convenient for deflecting that. The ones that weren’t, I broke down myself – figuring that subtracting five minutes from a laborious examination of Old English word-formation and grammar in order to show off shiny pictures of manuscripts, and another five for dirty riddles later on, was entirely worth it if it meant everyone had a good giggle and then actually paid attention to the rest of the lesson. This worked fantastically.2

The second useful piece of advice I took with me into teaching was given to me the year I was an Assistant Community Leader at a church camp. An ACL, incidentally, was one of a team of four or five people who kept tabs on forty to fifty kids, ran games and activities, and had a number of time-keeping responsibilities over things like small group time and devotions. We were a set of public faces, managed the community ‘theme’, and had some pastoral care duties as well. Turns out this is remarkably similar to tutoring in many ways!

One of the chaps running leadership training that year, when I was eighteen, talked about sharing skills around and personal leadership style. The way he put it, there’s no point all trying to be the *same* leader – some people are naturally good timekeepers and organisers, some people are good motivators, and some people (he put himself in this category) are Chief Idiot.

I realised that year that I was good at being Chief Idiot. I realised this at about the time I was standing on a chair in red velvet pants, red shiny shirt, a red cape, and fluffy bunny ears, ordering fifty teenagers off to brush their teeth and most of them did. I’m good at being Chief Idiot and it works for me. I learned other skills during my years with that particular camp – I did several years as a Head Orderly, a job that involved managing the food service area (not the cooking area), and getting people to do their washing up. Charisma didn’t do much for me there – I had to learn organisation and tact and authority. But the Chief Idiot part stuck with me.

Once I started thinking about my academic future, I started thinking critically about my teachers – whose styles I like and whose would best suit my demeanor. And when it comes to classrooms… yeah, I’m still Chief Idiot. You can’t be Chief Idiot all the time in a classroom, of course – you have to be the timekeeper and the cranky teacherface and all kinds of other things as needed. But Chief Idiot what I fall back to. Oddly, I’ve been taught by very few people who utilise that sort of style – most of my teachers have been pretty calm people.3 A lot of the time I feel like the only clown in the circus, but it seems to work. Or at least, so my students say to my face – it remains to be seen what comes back on my evaluation sheets. “Talks about dick jokes too much”?

As I said, I took the tutor training course this semester. I learnt some useful things, some interesting but not useful things, and a number of buzzwords (my favourite complaint at the moment is “this course lacks constructive alignment!”). But nothing as useful as those two pieces of information – no one pays attention for more than about fifteen minutes solid, and someone’s got to be the Chief Idiot.


1. Harry Potter jokes. Fantastic way of winning over the current crop of undergraduates (although I did have one older student who’d never heard of Harry, and possibly that was a bit alienating for her). The very first student to walk into the very first class I ever taught was a fellow fan. She was obviously very stressed and nervous about the course and course content, but there was a moment when I cracked my first Potter joke where you could see her visibly relax. That look of “oh, right, the teacher’s on my side“. This probably went both ways – the little snicker when I awarded points to Griffindor was proof that some of the students were on my side. It’s not possible for me to be scared of people who have in common with me such a significant part of my young adult experience.
2. Except, oddly, for the dirty riddle part. I don’t know what’s wrong with first years these days, they were more interested in looking at letter-forms on manuscript images than in sniggering about dick jokes. One of them even solved the Key riddle CORRECTLY and with an entirely straight face.
3. Lawrence Warner being the exception to that. Hi, Lawrence! I did some lectures this semester and I’ve come to the conclusion that my lecturing style is some kind of unholy hybrid of you and Mel H. I’m not sure that should be allowed to exist.


5 Responses to “The best teaching advice anyone ever gave me…”

  1. Alena Says:

    I’m glad you’re blogging again, I really enjoy your posts. Makes me wish I was an undergrad and could take one of your courses!

  2. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Enjoy the Harry Potter references while you may. I realised about three years ago that my natural tendency to explain medieval clichés by reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail was going to have to be retired because the students are all too young now to have the faintest idea what I’m on about. Other generational pop culture references have also had to be cut. Some day Harry Potter too will be a thing of the past. But yes, let me not get morbid and ancient, if you can stay current it works brilliantly. And I too am glad to see you return to the ether!

    • highlyeccentric Says:

      What? My students were all very au fait with Monty Python! It was the most popular paper topic for tute presentations this semester! Also a great way to fill in gaps in the tutorial schedule – although they all seemed more interested in my anecdotes about having watched it at church camp and then been barred from future watchings – because my only access to movies was at a friends’ house, and friends’ parents didn’t believe in teenagers knowing about oral sex – than they were in my expoundings on the many medieval texts evoked in Castle Anthrax.

      • Jonathan Jarrett Says:

        the many medieval texts evoked in Castle Anthrax

        Terry Jones knew more than he let on, those days. And yes, I have had similar incredulity from US persons on recounting this, which makes me think that Python is heading into the realm of bowler hats and Routemaster buses as outdated icons of Britishness. And, I think, with similar class value. Sad to see in a way.

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