Teacher as Student

Teacher as Student:

The Journey from Novice to Expert in Instructors

Chloe Moller

Students enter the first-year writing classroom looking like nothing so much as deer in the headlights. They begin their journey as novice writers in this new collegiate environment, ready to be molded into something resembling experts. With time, these students will grow into better, more confident writers, but the process is difficult. Then you have the first-year writing instructors, many of them new and inexperienced themselves. The truth is, there’s really no way to adequately prepare these new instructors for teaching. Sure, you can send them to a weeklong workshop and you can throw them into a semester-length pedagogy class. But, in the end, they’ll still be unprepared. That first day in the classroom, when they’re standing in front of twenty expectant and petrified students, a new instructor will have the same frightened expression as their pupils. Of course, given time, these instructors will grow in competence and confidence, much like their students. Indeed, the journey from novice instructor to expert teacher very much resembles the journey that their students must make from novice writer to expert writer. As we examine the various challenges and needs of students working towards expertise, we can better understand the process instructors must go through to become an expert themselves.

In order to continue, we must first establish a theory of expertise, or mastery. Susan Ambrose et al. tell us that in order to attain mastery in any field, one “must acquire component skills, practice integrating them, and know when to apply what they have learned” (95). A writer, therefore, must have whatever skills make an expert writer and be able to deploy them at will. Likewise, an instructor must gain the skills of a good teacher and be able to use them effectively. We’ll get back to what these skills actually are in a moment. Of course, attaining this level of mastery is no easy process. Roger Kellogg tells us that “learning to become an accomplished writer is parallel to becoming an expert in other complex cognitive domains. It appears to require more than two decades of maturation, instruction, and training” (2). If learning to write is the same as acquiring any other skill, then it is logical to assume that learning to teach writing requires similar dedication and practice. Two decades of patience is a lot to ask of both student and teacher. Nevertheless, it is vital that students and teachers recognize themselves as being as the beginning of a long journey towards mastery.

This argument is taken up by Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz, who argue that the first step towards writing expertise is to have students see themselves as novices. They are, after all, “asked to develop expertise in new subjects and methodologies, while still learning how to handle the tools of these disciplines and decipher their user’s manuals” (“Novice as Expert” 132). This bears a marked resemblance to a new instructor’s situation: “they are at a university . . . to learn how to teach writing while they also teaching writing. In other words, while they function as teachers in classrooms, they are equally functioning as students, learners who need to understand what it means to teach writing” (Restaino 57). Teachers, like their students, are looking to become experts, though in pedagogy rather than writing, and are expected to learn as they go. They too have been given the necessary tools to work with—instruction, textbooks, and faculty support—but are learning how to use them appropriately. Certainly this process can be a discouraging reality for both student and instructor. However, Sommers and Saltz caution that being a novice does not mean being hapless and helpless; instead, such an attitude “involves adopting an open attitude to instruction and feedback, a willingness to experiment . . . and a faith that, with practice and guidance, the new expectations of college can be met” (“Novice as Expert” 134). Students and teachers should not be helpless bystanders in their development, but rather must be actively engaged in changing their attitudes and developing skills.

There are benefits to such an attitude: “being a novice allows students to be changed by what they learn” and “to have new ideas” (134). Acknowledging their status, therefore, provides greater opportunities for growth and progression towards expertise. Heidi Estrem and E. Shelley Reid explicitly point out this parallel between students and teachers: in speaking of new graduate instructors, they “are reminded of Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz’s (2004) research on writing development over time: writing students are able to learn more, they note, when they are able to accept that they’re novices and need to learn” (475). The danger, they argue, of letting instructors see themselves as experts is that it “shortcircuit[s] their opportunities for growth” (475). On the other hand, letting them see themselves as works in progress allows them the same growth that Sommers and Saltz see possible in novice writers. Seeing themselves as beginners is a good first step on the journey towards expertise. This perspective not only allows them the necessary humility to learn but also provides a safe space. Jessica Restaino, in her book First Semester, suggests that all teachers are “in process” but suggests that “graduate student teachers seem especially deserving of the time and space to work on ‘becoming’” (Restaino 66). Novicedom allows students and teachers alike to make mistakes and learn from them without the much higher demands that accompany expertise.

So once they’ve acknowledged themselves as novices, students must acquire the component skills Ambrose discusses. There is some debate as to what these skills actually are. Anne Beaufort argues that in writing, there are two things that contribute to expertise. These are “rich and specific domain knowledge” and “strategic knowledge, or the ‘how’ of problem-solving in the domain” (138). D. McCutchen similarly states that, aside from being able to actually produce text, “skilled writers also hold considerable knowledge of discourse forms (i.e., genre) and frequently have extensive topic knowledge” (McCutchen 58). McCutchen’s discourse and topic knowledge are certainly a component of Beaufort’s domain knowledge. This domain knowledge must be “well-structured for easy access in routine situations and also for problem-solving in new situations” (Beaufort 138). Thus, like Ambrose suggests, one must attain skills and be able to apply them appropriately. This application, of course, applies to expertise at large.

First year writing (FYW) students are just beginning to develop this domain knowledge. Indeed, the entire purpose of FYW is to imbue them with such knowledge. This knowledge may include basic rhetorical knowledge, such as an understanding of kairos, ethos, pathos, and logos. It suggests an understanding of the writing process, from prewriting to drafting to revision. Combined, this knowledge allows novice writers to tackle the difficult task of composition. As they develop towards mastery, this knowledge will be well-digested, and thus can be called upon almost unconsciously. For example, when making a persuasive argument, a more experienced writer will be able to appropriately use ethos and pathos as required by the rhetorical situation, whereas a novice would have to labor to figure out what is most appropriate and how to utilize such appeals. “The addition of extensive writing-relevant knowledge allows the writer to move beyond the constraints of working memory (as traditionally defined) and take advantage of long-term memory resources by relying instead on long-term working memory” (McCutchen 63). Thus, as they develop this knowledge, it becomes easier to call upon and utilize appropriately.

FYW instructors require similar domain knowledge. Of course, they must have the very same domain knowledge that they are expecting their students to develop. They cannot possibly hope to teach the effectiveness of a pathetic appeal when they do not understand it themselves; they must be much further on the road to expertise than their students. What’s more is that they must not only have an understanding of such things but also understand its application. Again, they cannot teach what they do not already know for themselves. However, this knowledge is not all that is required of them. These teachers must also have extensive domain knowledge in pedagogy in order to understand how to best communicate knowledge to their students. For an expert instructor, one who has taught the same class for many years, such skills are (in theory) second-nature. A new instructor, however, will struggle to discover, mostly through experimentation, the knowledge that is such a part of an expert. No matter how much domain knowledge they have in terms of the subject matter of a class, they will flounder without the knowledge of how to pass that information on effectively. This is where semester-length pedagogy classes, pre-semester training seminars, and weekly meetings come into play, in an effort to supplement their lack of pedagogical knowledge. Given time, they will acquire this domain knowledge and learn to apply it appropriately. The once impossible task of teaching will become doable.

This is a good time to remind ourselves that attaining this knowledge will not happen overnight, nor even in the course of the first semester or the first year. For students, “the first-year writing course is hardly a make or break academic experience; its prognostic power is provisional and tentative at best” (Sommers and Saltz, “The Call of Research” 155). While FYW certainly teaches valuable skills, students will “find that such a foundation is inadequate for the more and deeper research assignments they are asked to complete in their junior and senior years” (155). This is absolutely true of the FYW instructor, as well. “By the end of the first semester, graduate students may feel more confident about their teaching abilities” (Restaino 22); such confidence may be misplaced, however, as graduate instructors still lack “more than a cursory knowledge about how writing has been theorized, the field’s major debates, or the history of composition’s disciplinary development” (22). They may no longer feel that they are on the verge of drowning, but the graduate instructor and the student both have a long journey ahead towards a semblance of expertise. As discussed earlier, it’s important that they continue to have a novice mindset and that they remain humble and open as they continue to move forward in their pedagogical education. To do otherwise will only limit themselves and make the process of learning more difficult and frustrating.

Returning to the skills required of an expert, regulatory skills are also necessary in the pursuit of mastery in writing. Studies show that, “for the most part, high levels of self-regulation are evident in professional writers’ descriptions of how they compose” (Graham 4), while on the other hand, “developing writers typically show little high-level, goal-directed behavior when composing” (Graham 5). An expert writer’s regulation strategies may include behavioral aspects, such as when they choose to compose, or it may also take the form of strategies, such as pre-writing and revision. This idea of “goal-directed behavior” is especially significant, as product goals allow young writers to envision and work towards a more successful product.

There’s an obvious corollary to FYW instructors. Those who regulate—who plan, revise, and set goals—are more likely to succeed. Of course, this regulation will take a different form than it does in a writer. Whereas students plan writing, instructors must plan lessons and plan how they will direct the class. Revision for writers may come before an assignment is due. In contrast, for an instructor, it may come after a lesson is already taught or even after a semester is over. The goal-setting behavior is similar; however, both must have a clearly defined purpose in crafting their essay or their plan. Indeed, goal setting is likely more important for the instructor than the student. It is vital that the FYW teachers have goals for each class and for each semester. These goals need to address what they hope the students get out of their experience and how they hope to develop as a teacher. They must then utilize whatever tools are available to them to work towards that end. Likewise, self-regulation in regards to time usage is a vital component of both student and instructor expertise. Instructors must regulate their time in the class—making sure the time is used appropriately and fully—and outside of class to ensure they accomplish everything that must be done while also maintaining important boundaries between professional and personal lives.

Such habits become easier with time for both student and instructor. Initially, writers must grapple with the simple act of putting words on the page. This step can be the physical aspect, in which they must learn how to wield a pencil or type on a keyboard, or it can be the more mental learning how to use letters and words to build sentences. This painstaking process does not last forever. “The automatization of graphomotor . . . linguistic [processes] . . . gradually gives way to the development of an increasingly complex strategy of composition, underlain by a growing number of linguistic, rhetorical and pragmatic constraints” (Alamargot et al. 856). By the time students come into their FYW classes, they ought to have attained sufficient skills so as to be able to focus on these strategies of composition. This process is important in developing expertise, as it allows writers “to tackle different types of composition in a highly efficient and economical processing mode” (Alamargot et al. 856). This echoes Ambrose, who argues that a component of expertise is being able to apply the learned skills when necessary.

Just as an expert writer will be able to meet the demands of various scenarios, a FYW instructor must be able to adapt to a variety of situations. There will always be a troublesome student, a lesson that doesn’t go quite as planned, or a question that changes the course of the discussion. Circumstances change and require an instructor that can change with them. Initially, this adaptability will seem impossible. For FYW instructors, “the first semester is more of a day-to-day keeping afloat than it is a carefully constructed, planned course” (Restaino 1). If instructors can hardly utilize strategies to carefully plan their course, they certainly cannot be expected to adapt to new situations on the fly. Yet this is a vital component of domain knowledge and self-regulating. They must be able to appropriately apply their domain knowledge and be able to regulate their behavior in the classroom. The answer to this difficulty, as with any writer, is practice, and the development of strategies that enable one to allow such planning and then adaptation.

This idea of practice is vitally important. “Advanced writing skills require systematic training as well as instruction so that executive attention can successfully coordinate multiple writing processes and representations” (Kellogg 22). Initially, writers will be so preoccupied with basic tasks, such as sentence generation, that they have difficulty with looking at the bigger picture. However, “an expert, professional writer . . . is able to maintain and manipulate in working memory representations of the author’s ideas, the text itself, and the prospective reader’s interpretation of the text” (14). They are able to move beyond basic concerns to larger ideas. This change is vital so “that executive attention can successfully coordinate multiple writing processes and representations” (22), which will ultimately allow writers to “use their knowledge effectively during composition” (22).

FYW instructors must go through a similar process. Initially, their concerns will be so basic as to prevent real adaptation and growth:

In an attempt to apply pedagogical tools, writing process strategies can function much like Arendtian laboring, where drafting, grading, and revision activities are repeated almost mechanistically throughout the semester as a way of keeping the course functioning while the broader goals of the process movement are overlooked and any opportunity for exploration or reconsideration of these goals are closed off (Restaino 26).

Therefore, just as with writers, for instructors “the central goal is to gain executive control over cognitive processes so that one can respond adaptively . . . to the specific needs of the task at hand” (Kellogg 2–3). FYW instructors must first master their various “process strategies” in order to look at the bigger picture and adapt accordingly. They must progress beyond the day-to-day struggle of instruction to have a grander vision for their course—a vital component of expertise.

Of course, this automatization of lower-level processes does not come naturally but can come with time and experience. As Kellogg argues, “practice makes perfect is so well known as to be a cliché, but the concept of deliberate practice is far more interesting and not well understood in the context of writing” (17). Students will practice all semester in their FYW course and throughout their lives anytime they write. Likewise, instructors will practice through their first course and each additional semester. Again, Kellogg suggests that it takes two decades of practice to become a true expert at something. It seems important to note, however, that while each semester may not make an expert, it brings teachers that much closer to expertise.

There’s also another interesting method of progressing towards expertise in writing, “namely, learning by observing” (Kellogg 17). For graduate students teaching FYW, this practice of observation can be an invaluable method of learning. While ultimately they must learn by doing, being able to watch other, more experienced instructors at work can provide them with ideas and techniques to get a jump start. Observing other teachers in the classroom, looking at other instructors’ lesson plans, and being able to ask questions of more experienced instructors can greatly aid in the development of a graduate student’s own mastery. It cannot compensate for their lack of domain knowledge or regulatory processes, but it may allow them to work towards developing those skills at a faster rate.

Even so, instructors have a long slog ahead of them. It does get easier, however: “during their first semester, “[graduate students] may feel as if they are drowning, but with drive and perseverance they can come up for air eventually” (Restaino 22). FYW teachers should practice and have reliance on more experienced teachers, which will help them develop as novice teachers, just as students rely on their instructors and their own practice. For students and instructors both, domain knowledge and regulatory skills contribute to the development of a long-term memory that allows them to progress towards expertise. In recognizing this, FYW instructors may gain empathy for the difficult task their students are undertaking and may come to better understand their own journey, limitations, and potential.



Works Cited

Alamargot, Dennis, et al. “Using Eye and Pen Movements to Trace the Development of Writing Expertise: Case Studies of a 7th, 9th, and 12th Grader, Graduate Student, and Professional Writer.” Reading and Writing 23:7 (2010): 853–88. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Ambrose, Susan A., et al. “How Do Students Develop Mastery?” How Learning Works. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. 90–120. Print.

Beaufort, Anne. “Developmental Gains of a History Major: A Case for Building a Theory of Disciplinary Writing Expertise.” Research in the Teaching of English 39:2 (2004): 136–85. Web. 11 Nov. 2014

Estrem, Heidi and E. Shelley Reid. “What New Writing Teachers Talk About When They Talk about Teaching.” Pedagogy 12:3 (2012): 449–80. Web. 22 Nov. 2014.

Graham, Steve and Karen Harris. “The Role of Self-Regulation and Transcription Skills in Writing and Writing Development.” Educational Psychologist 35:1 (2000): 3–12. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Kellogg, Roger. “Training Writing Skills: A Cognitive Developmental Perspective.” Journal of Writing Research 1:1 (2008): 1–26. Web. 27 Oct. 2014

McCutchen, D. “From Novice to Expert: Implications of Language Skills and Writing-Relevant Knowledge for Memory during the Development of Writing Skill.” Journal of Writing Research 3:1 (2011): 51–68. Web. 27 Oct. 2014

Restaino, Jessica. First Semester: Graduate Students, Teaching Writing, and the Challenge of Middle Ground. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2012. Print.

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Call of Research: A Longitudinal View of Writing Development.” College Composition and Communication 60:1 (2008): 152–64. Web. 17 Nov. 2014

Sommers, Nancy and Laura Saltz. “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year.” College Composition and Communication 56:1 (2004): 124–49. Web. 27 Oct. 2014