Teaching is a personal, professional, and political endeavour

The personal side of teaching

Teaching is a personal, professional practice. It is first a personal practice. The academic discipline you chose, and the way you contribute to students’ learning about and within that discipline, have deep personal roots. It was a meaningful choice for you at the time, and remains meaningful to you even now, as you continue to develop next generations of practitioners and scholars in your chosen discipline.

Further, teaching is a relationship-based activity. There is a relationship forged between you and the students whose learning you support, facilitate, and assess. Sometimes it is not a lifelong relationship, but even the briefest of learning encounters be tween you and students has relationship at its heart. It is so in teaching as is in medicine – the briefest encounter with a patient is infused with the essential characteristics of relationship (when it is done “properly”), such as compassion, care, advocacy, and taking the time to ensure the patient really understands their medical situation.

Most stories told be people reflecting upon the question What makes a great teacher? will mention aspects or attributes of the relationship the teacher had to students, or to the subject matter. As Parker Palmer puts it:

Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogues, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts – meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self.

When we begin teaching, we are commonly more focused on ourselves than on our students and their learning. Will I communicate these ideas effectively? Will I deliver the right content? Will they notice that I am nervous? But, as we develop into our teaching practices, we may notice subtle (sometimes abrupt) shifts occurring in the way we frame our practice. In an excellent study of how university teachers shift focus, or emphasis, as they develop, Kugel observed 5 distinct foci:

  1. Focus on Self: primarily concerned with their own role in the classroom.
  2. Focus on Subject: primarily concerned with the coherence and comprehensiveness of their presentation of the subject matter they teach.
  3. A focus on Students (in three stages):
    1. A concern with maximising students’ passive “absorbing” of knowledge (students as passive).
    2. A concern with students learning to actively “use” what they have learnt (students as active).
    3. A concern with developing students as independent learners (students as independent).

Who are you, as a teacher?

Parker Palmer reminds us that teaching cannot be reduced to technique (Palmer, 2017, p. 12). Yes technique can be important, because there should be a clear link between the kinds of things teachers do, or have their students do, and what it is that students are meant to be learning (Biggs, 1996). But for Palmer, there is an important link between a teacher’s practices and their very identity, or personhood; for Palmer, the integration of personal identity, motivation, love of subject-matter, our being, and how we relate to students are at the heart of our teacher identities.

So, who are you, as a teacher?

Take a moment to reflect upon your own experiences as a learner, and as a teacher.

  • What do you currently believe makes a good teacher?
  • What do you know about how learning occurs? Is what you know based on your experience or does it derive from reading literature on learning?
  • What makes for good teacher-learner relationships?
  • What makes for a good learning experience? How do you think students experience your teaching or your learning support / facilitation practice?
  • How do you know if you are effective?
  • Where are you in Kugel’s “five stages” framework? Be honest with yourself.

The professional side of teaching

Of course teaching is a professional practice. It has a body of theoretical and empirical science underpinning it, deriving from psychology, education, social sciences, and medical education. That scientific base informs (or should inform) our practices as teachers. Some of the implications of recognising the professional character of teaching, and key practice recommendations that arise from this science-of-learning, include:

  • Teaching should be understood as a practice that facilitates learning, and in this way, learning, the ultimate purpose of teaching, is at the centre.
  • Students, whose learning should be at the centre of teaching practice, should be the focus of our attention when reflecting on, designing, improving, and implementing teaching, for it is they who are doing the learning.
  • The learning context that is created when we implement our teaching, has a large effect on students’ experiences and their learning.
  • We should always create psychologically and culturally safe learning environments, in order to maximise students’ abilities to engage with learning.
  • We should enact relationships with students that are student-learning-centred, (sometimes called learning-alliance relationships), as these focus on teachers’ roles as learning-advocates and learning facilitators, whilst paying close attention to the progress of individual students.
  • There is always a “hidden curriculum” – that is those things that are “taught” and “learned” inadvertently, implied through the nature of the relationships and contexts in which learning occurs – e.g., “pimping” suggests that a psychologically unsafe learning environment is endorsed by teachers; speaking abruptly to patients, or speaking uncompassionately about patients, suggests that the “true” values of medicine and not the same as the espoused values embodied in the Hippocratic Oath and the Declaration of Geneva.
  • We should always ensure alignment of the values, culture, and behaviours implicit in the hidden curriculum with those we espouse as Doctors.
  • Teachers should apprise themselves of the theoretical frameworks relevant to the facilitation of learning and implement/enact empirically evidenced practices in their learning facilitation work.
  • Teachers should reflect on their learning facilitation work, gathering evidence about its effectiveness and impact on students and their learning, and interpret that evidence through theoretical frameworks, with a view to improving teaching practice.

Reflective practice

In their 2005 book about teaching surgery, de Cossart and Fish write:

…learning the practice of education does not spring fully fledged in the capacities of teachers. lt does not need to. A practice is learnt by engaging in it thoughtfully and critically and is illuminated by the ideas of others who are part of the same tradition. Teachers don't need to have developed all these capabilities and perfected them before working with learners. The teaching process is professional development for both learner and teacher … (de Cossart & Fish, 2005, p. 48)

For more guidance on developing your reflective practice visit the reflective practice page.

The political side of teaching

There is a political side to teaching also. There is a context within which the teaching and learning of medicine occur; that context is a political context. Government health policy, higher education policy, National and State law, university policies, and the personal contexts of the teaching and the power differential between teachers and students are all “political” in the broadest sense.



Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32(3), 347–364.

de Cossart, L., & Fish, D. (2005). Cultivating a thinking surgeon: new perspectives on clinical teaching, learning and assessment. tfm Publishing Ltd.

Palmer, P. (2017). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. Jossey-Bass.