To be a good teacher of psychology is in part a matter of “what you know.” You must be able to pull together disparate research findings and covey them to students in a coherent, meaningful way, one that helps them to understand key concepts and to apply this knowledge in the future. It turns out that being a good teacher of psychology is also a matter of “who you know"; that is, the professional connections you make. How so?
Last time I discussed the importance of conference attendance as a means to keep abreast of new teaching techniques and trends in psychology. This time, I want to focus on the importance of meeting like-minded peers and professionals, who can be a terrific source of ideas.
Consider this: Teaching is a wonderful calling but sometimes it can be a lonely one if you don’t have a colleague or two in whom to confide the highs and lows of the classroom. The magic of the classroom is that feedback (verbal and nonverbal) is fairly instantaneous: When you are “on” the students respond and you feel the excitement in, say, a heated debate or a moving discussion of a controversial topic. When you are “off,” the affect in the room plunges and the sense of having “lost them” is palpable—and it is not a pleasant feeling (indeed, there are few worse ones). Having a sounding board, someone to discuss what worked and what didn’t with, is important, but not everyone does. Where can you find one? How?
The answers are “at conferences” and “by networking.” One of great things about being a regular conference attendee is that you begin to recognize speakers and members of the audience; many of the same people will often be drawn to the same presentations at each and every conference. They, in turn, will begin to recognize you. Talks and symposia are not just opportunities for hearing and discussing pedagogy—they are places to make new friends who share your interests. Most conferences, especially teaching conferences, host “social hours” where speakers and audience members gather for refreshments and a chance to mingle. As time passes, acquaintances become colleagues, colleagues become friends, and soon you may be emailing peers routinely about your teaching life, asking for advice, guidance, suggestions, lecture or lab project ideas, even proposing and planning research projects that can be presented at future conferences.
It may sound surprising, but that is the odd power of academic networking. I’ve met many of my closest friends and co-authors through networking at conferences. Friendships don’t emerge overnight of course, but they do develop, as do professional opportunities to get involved in psychology organizations. But you have to start the process yourself—no one is going to do it for you, so you have to put yourself out there a bit.I think one of the wisest moves a new teacher can make is to become professionally active in a disciplinary organization. Join first and then attend the conference. Watch and listen to the presentations and think about what you might be able to contribute. Read the presentation requirements and submit a proposal (if you are nervous, ask a friend from where you teach or from your graduate school class to be a co-author). If your proposal is submitted, give your talk when the time comes and meet and mingle with those who stay after to ask you questions. Attend the social hour or any discussion hour (many conferences offer venues where people interested in the same issue, say, online teaching and learning, can gather to share ideas). If there is an invitation for people who want to become more involved in the organization, go to it and volunteer (everyone loves a volunteer and most organizations depend on “new blood” to keep going—why not you?).
As I have before, I want to put in a special plug for the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP), Division 2 of the American Psychological Association (APA). If you are a teacher of psychology or hope to become one—either at the high school or collegiate level—then joining STP may be one of the best decisions you can make. The STP web site contains a host of resources for teachers of psychology as well as information on joining the organization and, naturally, a list of teaching-oriented conferences in psychology.
If you are a new teacher, then I encourage you to start networking as soon as possible. Pick one conference for professional development and make plans to attend it and to begin networking. If you are an established teacher but you feel like you need a shot of pedagogical adrenalin, then do the same thing: make plans to attend a conference this or next year and/or rekindle your network of teaching peers.
Teaching is a great career because there are endless opportunities for you to reinvent yourself. Attending teaching conferences and doing a bit of networking are great ways for you to develop professionally.