Teachers as Students — How to Make it Work

By Olympia Duhart

There is a popular adage about teachers that I think of almost every single time I attend a teaching conference or workshop:  “Teachers make terrible students.”

And, often, my attendance at conferences aimed at improving legal education proves that aphorisms have staying power for a reason. I confess that at times I have been less than stellar in my approach to conference participation. And I’m not alone. Look around the room at most conferences and some of the law professors and instructors who make up the audience for any given session are just as “off-task” as the students are in their own classrooms. We are surfing the web.  Doodling. Whispering to the person in the next seat.  Or just plain spacing out.

But a funny thing happened last week in New York. I attended a teaching conference, and I was overwhelmed by the level of engagement and energy that both the presenters and the attendees displayed. The conference was jam-packed with innovative teaching ideas. People were taking notes and asking questions.  Volunteers were eager to share their own ideas to help their colleagues. Law professors spending the day as students were paying attention.

Kudos to the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning and to New York Law School for sponsoring such a successful conference June 1-3. The theme for the 2011 ILTL Summer Conference was “Engaging and Assessing Our Students,” and the session leaders breathed life into the theme.  Even the plenary for day one quickly moved from a traditional podium lecture to a Power-Point presentation to a display of narrative and story-telling to role-play among every single member of the audience. There were more than 150 people in attendance, and the room filled with questions, nervous giggles, note-taking and smiles as we were led through a session on how to use process drama to boost student participation in a law school classroom.

The high-note of day one set the tone for the sessions and workshops that followed. Over the next two days, workshops covered a broad range of topics that motivated and challenged novice teachers, master teachers, case-book professors and skills professors to improve the quality of their teaching.  A quick, totally random sample of workshop topics: ways to leverage the newest technology in the classroom, using the best of psychology to motivate struggling students, how to embark on an empirical analysis of an innovative teaching idea, guided journaling, redirecting laptop users and using vignettes to improve instruction on the negotiation process.

Throughout the workshops, everyone remained affable, engaged and attentive. Yes, the “teachers” were great students – but it was pretty easy because we had some really good teachers.  Most presenters at the conference modeled the best teaching practices and worked hard to make the sessions hands-on. The conference organizers made it clear from the start that the conference would only work if participants could make the sessions interactive.  Mission accomplished.

The teaching conference was an excellent way to end the spring semester, a perfect transition into the restorative promise of the summer and a positive, early kick-start for the fall semester. And despite that old saying about teachers as students, it also proved that what we all learned in law school also rings true: “There are exceptions to every rule.”