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October 17, 2006, Volume 53, No. 8

The CTL Teaching Certificate and Conversations about Teaching

Bruce Lenthall

Are you the same teacher you were the first time you walked into the classroom? Do you teach the same ways you did when you first started, perhaps as a teaching assistant in graduate school?

And if you are a different teacher—let’s say a better one—what enabled you to change, to improve?

Answering that last question and making use of that answer is at the heart of the University of Pennsylvania’s new CTL Teaching Certificate program for doctoral students and, indeed, at the heart of the School of Arts and Sciences’ Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

This fall, Penn initiated the CTL Teaching Certificate in order to provide graduate students who have a serious interest in college-level teaching with support to hone their teaching and with recognition of their commitment to their craft. The program encourages graduate students to become self-reflective teachers and to enhance their awareness of teaching practices by engaging in discussions about teaching.

This certificate is the fruit of several years of planning across the University. Two years ago, the provost’s office initiated an effort to find ways to improve teacher training for Ph.D. students. With input from the University’s graduate schools and graduate students, the decision was made to create a certificate program—to be developed and implemented by the Center for Teaching and Learning—that will provide graduate students with a structure through which they can improve their teaching at Penn and prepare themselves to become faculty in the future.

In order to help interested graduate students accomplish this, the CTL Teaching Certificate is designed to foster conversations about and to encourage graduate students to reflect on their teaching. Participants in the program will take part in several workshops and formal discussions about teaching and consider their own teaching with a fellow from the Center for Teaching and Learning who has observed them in the classroom. The certificate contains four components:

1) Pedagogical Discussion and Training: Participants must complete five CTL-approved teaching workshops. CTL-approved semester-long programs may be substituted for three of the five training workshops.

2) Teaching Experience: Participants must complete at least two semesters as a teaching assistant or instructor.

3) Observation and Review: Participants must have a full teaching session observed and reviewed by either CTL staff or an approved faculty member from their home department or school.

4) Teaching Philosophy: Participants must develop a statement of teaching philosophy and discuss it in a CTL session culminating the certificate program.

One item that does not appear on this list is a measure of a graduate student’s quality as a teacher. The certificate is not intended to indicate teaching excellence. Even so, it will appear on the transcript and can help students compete for jobs. Ultimately, what the certificate does indicate is that a student is committed to teaching and has taken significant steps to develop that craft.

Thinking about what those steps should be for graduate students brings us back to the question of how we develop as teachers. When I think about my own experience in the classroom, I know that in some respects I resemble the teacher I was years ago when I began as a graduate teaching assistant. I still believe, for example, that I teach best when I create ways for my students to think through questions, ideas and materials themselves. I also know, though, that in other regards, I teach quite differently than I did as a graduate student and as a new faculty member. Over the years, for instance, I have increasingly assumed a greater sense of ownership of my classes and with that, I guide the learning more assertively.

Obviously, some of what has helped me develop as a teacher has been, simply, gaining experience. But if experience alone were a sufficient instructor, it would be much easier for all of us to teach our own students: just hand out an assignment and move on to our next class. It is what we do with our experiences that counts. The ideas we develop as we evaluate and reflect upon our experiences as teachers, the ways we gain new perspectives on what we’ve done, that helps shape how we teach in the future.

Again, think about your own development as a teacher. How many of us, in graduate school, found conversations with peers and faculty a valuable part of our teacher training? Since then, how many of us refine our practice as we talk informally with colleagues? Such discussions can push us to reflect on our own teaching, to gain new insights about it, and to learn new ideas and strategies from each other. Creating opportunities to reflect on how we have taught can create opportunities to make exciting choices about how we want to teach in the future.

The CTL Teaching Certificate will help create those opportunities for interested graduate students. Even more appealing, though, the program will promote a wide range of conversations about teaching, even among those not pursuing the certificate.

This semester, for instance, the Center for Teaching and Learning is offering graduate students 30 teaching workshops that are supported in part by the certificate program. These workshops—covering topics from “Giving Students Feedback” to “Adapting to an American Classroom” for international TAs to “Creating Active Class Discussions”­—are a collaborative effort. Weingarten Learning Resources Center, the Critical Writing Program, the Library and SAS Computing have all contributed to the fall’s schedule.

The vast majority of sessions, however, are orchestrated by CTL Graduate Fellows. This new fellowship program, funded by the provost and SAS, is vital because it allows the Center for Teaching and Learning both to expand its university-wide programming and to offer programming that originates in specific departments and schools. Competitively selected from nominations by graduate chairs, CTL Graduate Fellows organize discussions that grow out of teaching issues common to a particular department but that are open to all doctoral students.

These departmentally centered programs take advantage of the realities of graduate student life, which tends to be focused in one’s department, and of disciplinary differences. Since some teaching issues can vary by department, tailoring some programs to closely related departments allows for conversations that feel directly relevant.

Finally, because CTL Graduate Fellows are working within their home departments, they are able to bring familiar faculty into those conversations. For instance, last week Kathy Peiss of History spoke to graduate students on “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Classroom,” and later this month Beth Linker of History and Sociology of Science, Adrienne Martin of Philosophy and Paul Sniegowski of Biology will speak to students on “Ethical Issues in Science Teaching.” For graduate students, this is a welcome opportunity to develop their teaching through conversations with faculty.

That point resonates far beyond its importance for the CTL Teaching Certificate program. Fostering discussions about teaching among faculty is at the core of the mission of the Center for Teaching and Learning. Many of CTL’s ongoing and developing programs, such as its lunchtime discussions of teaching, are designed to do just that: to encourage faculty—not just graduate students—to reflect on and to talk with each other about their teaching.

After all, for many of us, thinking about and discussing our experiences as teachers continues to help make us better teachers than we were when we first walked into the classroom.

For more information on the CTL Teaching Certificate or other programming, contact Bruce Lenthall at lenthall@sas.upenn.edu, Larry Robbins at robbinsl@sas.upenn.edu, or the Center for Teaching and Learning at ctl-help@sas.upenn.edu.


Bruce Lenthall is the Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL).

This essay continue the series that began in the fall of 1994 as the joint creation of the
College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching.

See www.upenn.edu/almanac/teach/teachall.html for the previous essays.

Almanac - October 17, 2006, Volume 53, No. 8