New teachers fret a lot. They worry whether their students will like them, question their credibility, or worse: learn nothing worthwhile. In her 13 years directing teaching assistant development in the Department of Communication, Professor Deanna Dannels has coached hundreds of new teachers and hears these very concerns and the questions that arise from them.
In her new book, Eight Essential Questions Teachers Ask: A Guidebook for Communicating with Students (Oxford University Press, 2014), Dannels shows that even expert teachers have concerns that lead to important questions about teaching. But by understanding the research, learning from mentors, and facing their fears, teachers can overcome their worries.
“Those first classes can be terrifying,” Dannels says. “My book offers anecdotal insight, research, and reflective exercises to help turn communication worries into strengths—to help teachers learn to trust themselves.”
The book is organized around eight essential questions that emerge from teachers’ communication concerns. Questions focus on establishing credibility, managing anxiety, negotiating power, engaging students, navigating relational dynamics, acknowledging differences in the classroom, providing feedback, and making a difference.
Each chapter begins with a case study describing a new professor with a specific concern and questions that emerge from that concern. Dannels calls these concerns “worry stone questions” after the stones she collects from Ocracoke Island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She keeps a hand-carved wooden bowl brimming with flat shiny stones in her office so each new teacher she mentors can select one.
Dannels’s book includes research that addresses essential questions and provides concrete suggestions for communicating with students. For example, the credibility chapter discusses studies that explain why credibility matters: Students who perceive professors as less credible are potentially less engaged in the course content. This chapter recommends teachers communicate a rationale for course policies and assignments as one way to establish credibility on the first day.
She concludes each chapter with take-home messages to help new teachers see their concerns and questions through a different lens.
Given that Eight Essential Questions addresses issues relevant to anyone in a teaching position, Dannels hopes her book will help teachers in multiple contexts and with varied roles and levels of experience. “This book asks the questions teachers are often afraid to ask,” Dannels says. “Its narrative style allows teachers to speak the questions they have and to carefully reflect on various answers to see what will work best.”
An earlier version of this article, by Debbi Gardiner-McCullough, originally appeared in the NC State Bulletin.