Category: professional development

Preparing for your Teaching Demo

Academic jobs are scarce. Candidates who make the short-list and get an in-person interview have a lot to prepare. You travel to the place, go to a lot of meetings with Department Heads, Deans, the Search Committee, have any number of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, give a research talk if you’re looking for a position with a research component, and do a “teaching demo.”

Someone I’ve been helping just landed an awesome, tenure-track teaching position. Before their interview, I shared this long list of advice on the teaching demo. I’m not suggesting causation or anything – this person is super talented – but apparently this advice didn’t hurt.

So, if you’re interviewing for a post-secondary, academic position with a teaching demo, here are some things to think about.

Do the background reading…

Higher ed is shifting (thankfully) towards evidence-based instructional strategies. You need to be familiar with the Freeman et al. Active Learning study (item #6 here. Also read the summary by Aatish Bhatia and the commentary by Carl Wieman.) Sure, it’s STEM but it easily applies to Social Sciences and the Humanities. While you’re there, you might look at #5 (Wieman) and check if there’s anything applicable in #4 (DBER)

I also recommend

  • Deans for Impact document “The Science of Learning
  • this amazing article, “Getting under the hood” by Sarah Eddy and Kelly Hogan about the importance of the instructor providing structure in the classroom
  • Review the institution’s statements about equity, diversity and inclusion. If you use their language and phrases, it’ll show you did your homework and you genuinely care about these things.
  • Just in case you’re tempted to talk about learning styles, read this letter debunking the myth of learning styles (and be prepared to debunk learning styles if someone asks). To me, and many of my colleagues in Centres for Teaching and Learning, the presence of “learning styles” in a candidate’s presentation or application is a litmus test – if they describe how they tailor their instruction to students’ learning styles, that’s not a good thing. Seriously, don’t do that – it could cost you the job. What you can say, by the way, when someone asks about learning styles is something like,

    it’s true that students feel they learn best by reading or drawing or listening or hands-on, etc. They have preferences. The theory of “Learning styles” – that if an instructor knows a student’s style, they can personalize the instruction for that student – has been debunked. Incorporating learning styles can be harmful because if an instructor uses them, they give a student an easy excuse: “Oh, I’m a visual learner and the instructor only did auditory. Not my fault I failed that test…” What we DO know is people learn from seeing the same concept in more than one context: if you have an important concept, teach it visually and talk about it and give students hands-on practice and…

Teaching demo

2016 Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute
It’s not but this sure looks like a teaching demo. (Image: Berkeley Center for New Media. Shared on flickr CC-BY-SA)

Very likely you’ll have to teach a demo lesson. Might be 20 min, might be longer. They might give you a topic, or ask you to pick.

Some things I’ve seen in successful ones (and things that would’ve helped in unsuccessful ones):

  • Ask the interview organizer about the audience of the course – what students would take this course. Even better, find out what course your topic would be part of, research the prerequisites, and find any learning outcomes from other instructors at that institution. Imagine if you could introduce your demo with, “I’ll be talking about A, B, C, something I believe students typically cover in ANTH 102 [that’s the interviewing institution’s course code] so I’m going to assume they’ve all passed ANTH 101.” Everyone talks in course codes, not course names, so use the familiar language.
  • Ask about the audience at the interview – like how many people to expect, if they’re real students or faculty asked to observe. Whatever they are, though, you have to teach to them like they’re the students who’d take the course you’re teaching.
  • You need to role play, and you should ask them to play along. You’re the prof, they’re your students – ask them to think like typical students who’d take that course.
  • Take a minute or two at the beginning of the demo to set the stage. Talk to the interview audience as colleagues:

    Let me set the context for this lesson. This is the 4th class of the term. We’ve already covered A, B, C. Next week we’ll be moving onto G, H, J so today’s class is about D, E, F. If you were in this course, last night you would have read about d, e, f and answered some questions. I know you here today didn’t but I’m going to assume you all know the definitions of this, that, and the other thing and also that know the widget procedure described in the reading. Okay, now, on with today’s class.


    Great to see you all again, everyone. I hope you had a chance to do the readings – we’re going to rely on that today. Recall…

  • Even though you won’t get to it all, carefully design the entire lesson. Write learning outcomes, select background readings, write the reading quiz, make up in-class, homework, and exam questions, choose active learning strategies that support the learning outcomes. Create PPT slides with the content (notice how that’s the last thing!) You might make some copies of the pre-readings (select pages from the text or primary literature) and the reading quiz (if you use a flipped model, which I highly recommend!). Give them to the people on the committee (not the entire audience, unless you want to make a lot of copies). Have the homework and exam questions “in your back pocket” (ie, in the extra slides at the end of your presentation) for when someone asks, “how would you assess this on the exam?” They might not ask that, but if they do, and you’ve got it, awesome!
  • Make sure the activities are active, and then get your audience to DO the activity like an authentic class. If you want to use clickers, arrange that with the interview organizer. If you’d like whiteboards, arrange it. Bring the worksheets or index cards or anything you need.
  • Okay, it has to be active but not Every Active Learning Strategy Ever. Pick one or two active things you’re comfortable with and do that. Not clickers and whiteboards and worksheets and keep-quit-start cards and a jigsaw and and and. That’s not realistic or authentic. (By the way, if you want to use peer instruction, you might want to review my peer instruction recommendations (humble brag))
  • It’s totally okay (maybe even necessary) that for some of your time, the audience is working on something. That’s active learning. That’s teaching. That’s what they want to see. But be careful not to overdo the active learning – the committee needs to see you perform and share your expertise about the content and how people learn the content.
  • Stick to the time allotted. If they give you 20 minutes, use  20 minutes. Not 15. Not 25. Don’t try to stuff a 50-minute lesson into 20 minutes, though. When you’re near the end of the allotted time, stop at a natural break, and break out of the teacher-student role playing.

    That’s what we’d do in the first 20 minutes or so. In a real class, we’d continue on with a second example of E, I’d give a mini-lecture on concept F and we’d finish with G.

    The people in the audience who know the content will totally understand why you stopped where you did and why F and G are the next logical parts of the lesson. The people who don’t know the content will appreciate you sticking to the schedule and your awareness of the situation.

  • Find out where you’ll be presenting and check out the room ahead of time. They’ll very likely build time into your interview schedule to prep for your demo. Do everything – connect your laptop, figure out how to get your stuff on the screen, get the audio working if you’re showing a video (and queue the YouTube video so you don’t have to watch the ad at the beginning), figure out the lights, window blinds, try the clicker, find the wall clock or get your phone clock running.
  • Don’t use technology you’re not familiar with, like if you’ve never used polleverywhere before, this is not the moment to figure it out. Don’t let a trivial technical problem wreck your presentation.
  • If the furniture is flexible, arrange the tables and chair into reasonable, feasible configurations. If the course you’re demo’ing is the one with 400 students, don’t plan your lesson for people in groups of 4 around separate tables – that’s not how the course is taught at this university. If your demo demands a very special classroom configuration and they don’t have that at the institution, you might be hurting your chances. Here’s an idea, poke around on the institution’s website and see what kinds of classrooms they have (for your course) and mimic that.
  • Don’t be afraid or embarrassed about getting fully into the role-playing. For the next 20 minutes, you’re the prof and they’re your students. Own it. No one is going to complain that you taught too hard. But if you only half-teach, awkwardly flipping between researcher settling on a teaching job, instructor, colleague, peer, recent graduate,… that’ll show, and not in a good way.

Post-demo questions

Be prepared for two rounds of questions, one immediately after you finish your demo and another later with the “teaching committee” (likely a group of teaching-focused instructors and someone from the institution’s Teaching and Learning Centre). And maybe a third round of questions if you have dinner later with the host and a select group.

Immediately after the demo, you’re not likely to get questions about the content from faculty members in the audience (“Can you explain the difference between meiosis and mitosis, again?”) That would take an audience member role playing as a student and if they’re not, they won’t (unless Dr. Smith is being an a**hole, as usual, and then you let the audience sigh, and you answer him as if he’s a student.) You should expect some questions about the design and delivery of the lesson.

  • “How do ensure students will come to class prepared?”
  • “Can you tell me why you chose to use [technology] in this situation?”
  • “What were your learning outcomes for this lesson?”
  • “How would you assess this?”
  • “How have you addressed [the common misconception]?” (This might be from someone familiar with the discipline-based education research, testing to see if you’ve done your homework.)
  • “I think I caught it but just in case, how did you address the diversity of the students you could expect here at Institution?”
  • “What’s your approach to students on their phones and laptops, Twitterbooking and chatsnapping all the whole time?”

For these questions, and others you hope (that is, anticipate) they’ll ask you, prepare some slides for the end of your presentation. When they ask about assessment, flip to the slide with the homework and exam questions. When they ask why you chose active learning, flip to the slide with the graphs from Freeman et al., Eddy & Hogan, Wieman. SHOW THEM YOU DID YOUR HOMEWORK.

This is a lot of work

Yes. It is. Just like the hard work you put into your CV, cover letter, and research talk.

My point is this: don’t give the Search Committee any reason to reject you. Instead, give them every reason to hire you.


Over the last 6 months, I’ve had the opportunity to participate in a really great management and leadership training program at UBC Okanagan. Organizational Development & Learning Manager Laurie Mills and ODL Specialist Lisa Frost organized, hosted, and facilitated a rich program that led us through four quadrants of leadership and management of people and tasks.

Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills, UBC Okanagan)
Leadership and management of people and tasks. (Source: Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, UBC Okanagan)

Now that the program is coming to an end, Laurie asks what stood in each quadrant.

People Leadership: inspiring, engaging, and influencing others

is about initiating and managing change by influencing without authority. Drew Bird talked about what motivates people to do good work:

What Do People Really Want? Does the leader have influence
to make this happen?
to be treated as an individual Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have a voice and contribute Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be valued for their talent Green check Wikimedia Commons
to have some control over their work Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated respectfully Green check Wikimedia Commons
to work towards a goal Green check Wikimedia Commons
to learn and grow Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be treated equitably Green check Wikimedia Commons
to be part of something that they value Green check Wikimedia Commons

Nic Tsangarakis reminded us of the power of thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.
The more we talk, the more we find we have in common.

Task Leadership: establishing and pursuing vision and purpose

is about managing transition. Laurie reminds us, “when there’s change, there are losses.” And as William Bridges says in Managing transitions: Making the most of change (2009), transition starts with an ending and ends with a beginning.

Task Management: organizing and resourcing the job to be done

is about identifying and dealing with the many constraints on a task like cost, time, resources, risk, quality, scope. And that the project leader’s role changes and adapts.


From Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (2002), we read

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction of a team is a failure on the part of the team members to understand and open up to one another. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team.

“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without feat of reprisal.

“Teamwork begins by building trust and the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

People Management: coaching and developing staff to maximize performance

“Managing people,” Laurie says,”effectively means paying attention to what motivates individuals, how they want to be supported and recognized for their efforts. It also requires skillful communication to navigate and strengthen the interpersonal dynamics that impact engagement, teamwork, and productivity.” She also reminded us that when people are under-performing, it’s possible

  • people don’t know what to do
  • they don’t know how to do it
  • there’s something getting in the way

Laurie urged each of us to stretch out of our leadership and management comfort zone so I’m going to

practice how to let go of your need for order and control, and appreciate the benefits of improvisation. Allow the creativity of the people on your staff to emerge out of unstructured situations. (FIRO Business Leadership Report)


Things I’ve learned about leadership and management

Before I started this program (and this job), I had the feeling that leaders know how to do everything. That’s what you see on TV and in movies, where the plant manager goes and works on the assembly line, when the oil boss goes out and fixes the rig, when the general joins the SEAL team for a daring raid. Leadership and management, then is about delegating those tasks to others so you don’t have to do it yourself, giving you more time to, uh, lead?

I’m coming to the realization that’s not the kind of leadership I want to provide. Instead, I want to make strategic decisions, with input from my team, about where we’re headed, identify who has the skills, and then provide the resources and support for my colleagues to do their thing. They have the skills and expertise (and the motivation to learn) – they need an opportunity to demonstrate those skills and be recognized for their contributions.

Gee, this sounds a lot like the kind of educator I try to be. An educator who recognizes that students come to the classroom with knowledge, skills, and conceptions about how the world works. My job is to draw that out of them and create a safe, supportive, inclusive environment for them to use their strengths to learn my material in a way that’s meaningful and valuable to them. And to welcome them to contribute to the class and bring all of us further than I could go without them.

It’s okay to take time to think before acting or reacting.

Difficult conversations are difficult. The DEAR model (via Glen Sollars) helps you plan (and rehearse) the conversation:

Describe specifically what you want to see and hear
Explain the impacts, standards, rationale, and how it makes you feel (using “I” language)
Ask for their point of view, suggestions, options
Request what you’re seeking for the future, whether it’s compliance, cooperation, or commitment

The Ask stage is powerful. It gives the person a chance to provide more info, share their side of the story, explain themself, make suggestions,…before the leader makes the request. It stops the difficult conversation from being a lecture and replaces it with  thoughtful debate and active listening, with a goal of learning.

I’ve had a chance to use the DEAR approach and I have to say, it worked great. The most important part, I think, was the time I spent drafting the D, E, A, and R before the meeting. That forced me to clearly recall what led to the conversation, identify why “I” cared, find a question that didn’t simply confirm the answer I expected (that is, you can’t ask, “Why do you think it went wrong?” because their honest answer might be, “I don’t think anything is wrong” but they can’t say that without contradicting you! With help from Glen, I went with, “What are your thoughts about […]?”) I also had the time to come up with clear requests. When the conversation happened, I was prepared. I didn’t stumble through it. The person “cleared the air” about the incident. We’re not just back to where we were before the incident – things are stronger now because of this conversation.

A funny thing happened at one of the program’s events. Not funny-haha but funny-odd. And ironic, since the program is about leadership and the event was about inclusion, implicit bias, and recognizing privilege.

It was a workshop with my peers, not a meeting with a hierarchy and power structure. To get to know us, the facilitator asked each of us to say our name and what we do, and to share something we’re celebrating. Around the table we went, people sharing their celebrations at work, at home, wherever. I said I was celebrating the fact that we’d received enough proposals for the conference I’m organizing to put together a rich, full, 2-day program. Immediately, both the facilitator and one of my peers said, “Oh, is that conference on again this year? We usually submit something but we didn’t hear about. It’s too bad we didn’t know…” Professional-me made a mental note to check how we advertised the call for proposals and look for ways they could still participate. Personal-me was knocked back by this declaration of my failure (no imposter syndrome here or anything, nope, not at all…) As professional as I want to be, I shut down. I didn’t engage with the group like I normally would. I reacted poorly, I guess. Great, another failure.

Here’s my point: if you’re the leader and you ask your team to do something risky, like reveal something personal, you’d better be prepared to thank them for the contribution, to celebrate or empathize with them. If you criticize or judge, or permit others people to criticize or judge, you risk that person disengaging for the rest of the meeting, and potentially longer.

Gee, back to educator-me, again. If an instructor creates an inclusive classroom environment where every student feels they are welcome to contribute and a student finally feels so confident that they speak up, and then instructor immediately critiques or belittles them, well, you can be pretty sure that student won’t say anything for the rest of the class. Or the next. Trust is so fragile. It take so much work to build it and so little to break it. Huh, imagine that – there’s a whole paragraph about trust a few hundred words ago. Are you suggesting, Peter, that teaching and leadership have a lot in common…?

Teaching and leadership have a lot in common.

Self-assessments. We did a lot of them.

  • EQ-i2.0 emotional intelligence survey
  • Lumina Spark portrait (that’s the one with the colours…)
  • Strengths-Based Leadership (“StrengthsFinder”) survey
  • FIRO Business Leadership survey

As someone coming from a background in the hard sciences – astronomy, physics, and especially math – I was skeptical about the validity of these surveys and their results. I had to rely on the knowledge that people in the field trust these surveys, that the data are valid, and that the results are patterns based on a lot of data. It’s like I didn’t know the Theorem of Pythagoras but my mathematical colleagues tell me it’s valid to add a^2 and b^2 and compare it to c^2, and that there’s statistically significant evidence that a^2 + b^2 = c^2 in right-angle triangles. So, I’ll trust them and be pretty confident that since 25 + 144 = 169, a 5-12-13 triangle probably has a right angle.

I have the most confidence in the Lumina survey because despite my skepticism, my personalized report says,

You are known as someone who likes to work with facts and solid evidence. You would feel very uncomfortable if you were forced to make quick decisions, without the necessary due diligence and information gathering. You firmly believe in evidence-based thinking and will challenge people who thinking seems whimsical or without foundation [*cough* *cough* learning styles]

My report goes on to say,

You are probably appalled by some of your colleagues who use less systematic techniques and whom you may see as data immune.

You are highly aware of the destructive potential of conflict, and tend to bring out your innate send of diplomacy when you feel a dispute getting out of hand.

Though you tend not to resolve an issue in an outright confrontation, you often try to repair  relations from behind the scenes. Your desire for harmony may manifest itself sometimes as a willingness to say No, and this could lead to over-committing.

You don’t like people who do not take into account other people’s views. You find their communication style to be selfish and uncaring toward the team.

When you’re overextended, you shift from reliable to hesitant: you may hesitate on all further interactions and decisions if the possibility of meeting commitments is hindered.

So…yep, yes, uh-huh, yeah, nailed it, hey how did you get inside my head?

If you’ve done Lumina, you’re probably wondering about my colour. I’m blue, with some blue and more blue, and maybe a hint of greeny-blue. See for yourself:

My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.
My Lumina splash is blue with blue and some blue, putting me squarely in the observing, cautious, evidence-based, practical, reliable, down-to-Earth quadrant.

There’s a lot more in the Lumina report and the other assessments’ reports. I’m continuing to dig through them, with both skepticism and recognition that there’s a lot there to help me.

Lastly, I learned know that none of this would have been possible with the incredible effort Laurie Mills and Lisa Frost, and the generosity and patience of my cohort. I am certainly much better prepared for the leadership role I find myself in. Thanks, all.