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Conversation #46: Regan Gurung on Teachers as Superheroes

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Regan Gurung

A conversation with Dr. Regan Gurung of UW-Green Bay on teachers as superheroes.

Dr. Regan Gurung is a Professor of Human Development and Psychology. He was born and raised in Bombay (India), got a B.S. at Carleton College (MN) in Human Development, then spent 5 years in Seattle at the University of Washington. After getting his Ph. D. (Social/Personality), he did postdoctoral work at UCLA (Health Psychology). Then landed in Wisconsin, Green Bay. He has served in a number of roles at UW-Green Bay including as Chair of Human Development and Chair of Psychology, as Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and as co-director of the UW-Green Bay Teaching Scholars Program. He is Past-President of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology (STP) and Past-President of the Bay Area Community Council (BACC).

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Dr. Hammer: ... today I’m speaking with Dr. Regan Gurung, a professor at the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay. Dr. Gurung has his PhD in Social Psychology and Personality from the University of Washington, and has served as the associate dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, as well as the co-director of the UW – Green Bay Teaching Scholars program; he is a past president of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Dr. Gurung, thanks so much for joining me today… So, as you know, I’ve seen you speak and you’ve spoken on the topic of teachers as superheroes, skills and kryptonite, and it’s one of my favorite talks that you give; so I wonder if you could describe to our listeners what you mean by this.

Dr. Gurung: Absolutely… I think there are many different levels to this talk and to that topic, but I wanted to start off with what really inspired me to put these thoughts together and that is: when you look at how much the average teacher has to do, when you factor in class preparation, when you factor in paying attention to student learning, to pedagogical skill training, and so on and so forth. To be able to do that all it seems like you have to be a superhero, and that really struck me; especially in the spirit of the last few years where there are all these superhero movies around, and this whole notion that, wow, teachers do a lot, and I think the average person may not realize all that goes into teaching… Especially at the college level, it seems like you go into class and that’s it; but there’s just so much behind every minute of class time, there’s just so much to do. So, that’s why, when I think about superheroes I think about teachers as superheroes, and teaching as a kind of superpower, and that’s why I talk about skills and kryptonite. I talk about skills and kryptonite because I think there are certain powers that teachers have and, just like superheroes, there are those certain things that can be a downfall. So, that’s the big picture, that’s where it came from. And, I should say off the back, starting about teaching in a superhero kind of fashion, there is a history of heroes in mythology and I’m just fascinated by that myth of the hero, and I actually see, there are many ways in which that maps out what teachers actually do today.

Dr. Hammer: So when you were thinking about it you were thinking about the classroom prep, and that as teachers being kind of the primary role, but then all the other things, service, scholarship, piled on to it; am I correct?

Dr: Gurung: Absolutely. I mean, think about, it’s not just paying attention to each student and giving those students your full attention; there’s doing research, and doing service, and let’s not forget about life, there’s other parts of life that, so often, we don’t even talk about. I mean, we talk about when do you get your research done, when do you get service done, class prep, grading; and then there are friends and family that we need to fit in there as well. So to balance that all, gosh, it takes, near superhero powers.

Dr. Hammer: So let’s talk about those. What are some, when you say superpowers for teachers, what are you talking about, what are the superpowers?

Dr. Gurung: Well, I think there are a number of things that I think about when I think about superhero powers… I think first off, right off the back, I think about the ability to balance different acts, but I think, especially in the context of teaching, I think, “when I step into that classroom I need to be really aware of what’s going on in that classroom”. So, I think that takes a lot of awareness, I like making the connection to Spiderman, Spiderman has that “spidey-sense” right, he’s looking in one direction but he knows what’s going on behind him; and sometimes that’s what happens in the classroom, we’ve got to be paying attention. We can’t just deliver content without paying attention to whether or not our students are getting it. So, we’ve got to develop that “spidey-sense,” paying attention to what’s going on in that classroom, that’s one of them.

I think of course, superhuman strength is one thing. Even though we don’t physically need that strength in the classroom, the reality is, especially when class is about to start, we teachers need to take care of ourselves physically and mentally, we need to be physically strong and mentally strong. And I don’t mean [being] able to lift automobiles and jump trains but, just going in and delivering passionate classes takes energy, and I think if we’re not physically prepared for that we’re not going to do a good job.

Dr. Hammer: It’s funny you mention the physical stuff; we are in the middle of new student orientation at my university and I had to move desks today so I’m feeling the physical and the mental need.

So, when we publish this podcast and people are listening to it, obviously, it’s going to be at the beginning of the semester. So what, from your work and having thought about this for a while, what superpower do you think we should nourish the most at the beginning of the semester, and how. What tips would you give them?

Dr. Gurung: So I think there are a couple of key things that I keep in mind, and so I’ve talked about Spiderman, let’s talk about Iron Man; Iron Man has this suit of armor. I like to, using the Avengers’ term, I like to “suit up” before I go into class; and when I talk about suiting up, I suit up with research. What I mean here is I read up (have read up) on the research that’s related to teaching and learning, and I want to make sure that I’m aware of that research so I can share it with my students the first day or the first week of class, and I’ll be very specific. For example, it’s very important for teachers to set the tone right from the first day; long gone are the days when somebody goes in, gives the syllabus, and walks out, that’s just not the best way to start class. You want to set the tone, you want to use the time, and I like to set certain standards as far as behaviors go, for example, not using laptops: there’s a very strong research base showing that the use of laptops to take notes versus handwriting is not optimal for learning. So, when I suit up I take the research in, that’s my armor, I take the research in so it’s not just my opinion but I share the research with my students, I sometimes show them graphs and data and say “look, you may think laptops are better but here are some studies when they compared notetaking with laptop versus paper and look… the people who took notes with the laptop didn’t do as well.” It’s the same thing with texting, its divided attention. The reality is if you divide your attention in the classroom you’re not going to learn as much. So I like to suit up, armor myself with these research findings so I can share them with my students so they have the best tips to learn. So that’s the one big thing for the start of class I say, be aware of some really key bits of research to share with your students that will help them learn better and study better.

I already mentioned being physically active, I think the one more thing I’ll add, especially for the start of class; one big thing is to eat smart. I know that’s an odd thing to say in a teaching podcast, but I think we forget about that. The reality is (and this is the health psychologist in me coming up) the reality is, what we eat determines our energy levels, the reality is, protein gives us energy and burns longer that carbohydrates or fats. So I start my day, and I know this sounds crazy but, I actually eat differently on teaching days; some of my colleagues make fun of me for eating peanut butter sandwiches on days where I’m teaching 4 hours in a row but, that peanut butter sandwich is simple, it’s quick, and it gives me the energy. So, I actually watch my nutrition because I think if we eat smart it really gives us more energy for a longer period of time. So those are some really key things right off the bat.

Dr. Hammer: Thank you so much for sharing those. I will mention that the articles you mention, the texting one and the laptop one, we can put links at the bottom of your podcast so that anyone listening who would like to see those can see those. And that is such good things to remember at the beginning of the semester, I’m glad to hear that myself.

So, we’ve been talking for a minute about powers let’s shift for a minute to the kryptonite: what do you see as a major kryptonite that teachers should be aware of? What steps can we take to avoid them in kind of practical terms?

Dr. Gurung: I think there’s a lot of individual difference here in where people have their weak points, so when we talk about kryptonite we basically talk about where’s the Achilles heel, what’s your weak point. In my talking to different faculty members, I think probably the biggest one is the inability to balance time; efficiency and balancing time is probably one of the biggest bits of kryptonite and there are things that I think we can do to be more efficient to balance time better. One of the things I love sharing is, whether its study habits for students or teaching behaviors and research writing for us, it’s all habit and we’ve got to build better habits. There are a number of really good reads out there, one of my favorites is actually one not written by a psychologist but, Gretchen Ruben has one out called Better Than Before, and she actually does a really good job of taking the psychological research on habit formation and putting it together in this really easy read and easy to follow way to change habits. The bottom line here is balancing your time, getting your research done, spending time on your classes, is all a matter of building good habits; and one of the key take home messages there is to pick a keystone or foundational habit, change that and a lot of other habits will follow. So, when I think about kryptonite, when I look at people who have issues or problems, I notice that it tends to be the lack of good habits; and instead of trying to change everything, pick that one habit, get good at it, and you will find that other habits will change as well. But that’s a big deal for teachers; to be “superhuman” and balance a whole bunch of things I think we’ve got to be better at habits.

  One other bit of kryptonite I think that some people don’t even realize is organization, and I know this follows with time management and balancing things but, I even mean being conscious of your organizational skills because this is something that students pick up on. If you go into class and you haven’t allowed enough time before class starts, God forbid you’re late, and you’re there and you’re shuffling your papers, that maybe encodes your personality-style but students pick up on that and what I’ve noticed in my reading and research on digging into perceptions of teachers, organization is something that is a big flag for students, and as a social psychologist we know that those first few seconds are really important. As we talk about the first day of class where many professors will be, boy, spend the time to make that first day go like clockwork because that time is time well-spent; you set up that first day well and the following days are likely to go better.

Dr. Hammer: Yes, and again, you’re right the data just kind of bares that out in terms of student achievement, motivation, attitudes, teaching evaluations… Let me ask you a follow-up question on that: do you have specific things that you do for organization on the first day? When you say that that’s nice in theory, be organized on the first day, but can you remember when you made that shift and what you did that made a difference?

Dr. Gurung: Absolutely! Teaching intro psych. I realized that (and something that I now do with all my classes) my first day is almost as scripted as a play; it may sound crazy to say [that] but I even think about staging, where will I be and movement, I think about a whole bunch of things. And real quickly, I make sure I’m in class at least 10 minutes early if I can make it; and more importantly, I talked about the syllabus earlier, I don’t give out the syllabus at the beginning. All my classes I try to tell students “look, before you get bogged down with grades and exams and what’s due, give me an hour, or half an hour, give yourself half an hour to just get a feel for the topic of this class.” So we have this great discussion about how does this topic apply to life, what is this topic about, without even looking at the syllabus. And so, when I map out my first day I literally map it out: I’m going to be doing this applied work for the first x minutes, I’m going to take some time on letting them know who I am, I’m going to take some time to get to know who they are, and then at the end of about an hour I roll out the syllabus and we go into those nitty-gritty things. And I’ve found that that helps people really get a good feel for the material instead of just going “here’s the syllabus,” because then you click into a different kind of mode. So organizationally, I pay very close attention to what’s happening when, and what’s optimal, and what the needs of that first day are.

Dr. Hammer: Thank you. And if you don’t mind me backing up to your first kryptonite, which was the habits issue, which is great information to hear at the beginning of the school year when we’re all interested in renewing ourselves; the habits, you mention if you can change some foundational habits others will change. I wonder again if you could think back, what foundational habit did you change and how did it trickle into your teaching; could you give us an example?

Dr. Gurung: One of the big habits that I’ve been paying attention to, not just when I started teaching but even right now, is technology use. I think, especially in this day and age, I think being very conscious of how much time we give to technology use and here I mean social media (if you’re a Facebook user, or read the news on the web) or email for that matter, that’s a big one right there for us academics is email; how much time are we giving to those things. And I think that is one, especially with the family, I’ve become very conscious of when I don’t touch email, when I will not check email and things like that. I think that’s probably one of my biggest is computer/social media usage outside of academic or research kind of use because I think it’s so easy for those things to spill over and take over more time than you thought; and I think for me personally that’s one of those things that I really try to work at is making sure not too much time is taken up with technology, email, and stuff like that, so I get good blocks of time to work on class and research.

Dr. Hammer: Yeah I can see that […] because email can be this rabbit hole, if you can build a good habit around that, how that would then help you focus on priorities of class prep, of scholarship, but also help you be present when you’re with students and interacting with students…

Dr. Gurung: And I was just going to say, along those lines, I think something that’s important is building in time for reflection. I think if you pack your lives with running from point A to point B and you don’t have that down time for reflection, reflection in general especially reflection on how you’re teaching and what you’re doing, I think that’s difficult. And when you can build in that time… and when I say time for reflection I mean when you’re not going to check email, when you go for a walk without your phone. To come back to the superhero business, superheroes often have a fortress of solitude if you’re Superman or the bat cave if you’re Batman, and these are great places where they go and they’re not disturbed and they can reflect on things; and I think teachers need those places for reflection. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a physical place but its mind space… and you’ve got to give that to yourself where the TV is not on, where you’re not scrolling through your phone, where you’re literally just giving time with your mind and how class went and what you’d like to do. And I think that’s a really big deal that too many of us don’t make enough time for.

Dr. Hammer: Yes, agreed… and as we’re wrapping up here I’ve just got to ask, who is your superhero and who is your nemesis?

Dr. Gurung: Wow… I think my nemesis is that nameless student who, despite my best efforts to motivate and inspire, still remains unmotivated and uninspired. So, I think we all every once in a while we have that, where you have a person who, do what you might, you cannot reach and I think that’s pretty tough to face. And I think superhero wise that many of my friends, especially the person I’m talking to right now, you (Dr. Hammer), with all the hard work people in the Society for the Teaching of Psychology are folks I’ve truly been inspired by over the years and are just wonderful examples of really hard workers who, no matter how many years they’ve been in the field just work continuously to do better, and that’s really inspiring. And there’s such a long list that I don’t even want to name a few for fear of missing out others. But […] there again it’s like you have angels, like the super friend or wonder twins, that you have people that are there with you, and I love the cry of avengers assemble, you know sometimes I feel like I’m tired I want my teachers avenger friends to assemble and give me strength, and often going to a teaching conference is like the avengers assembling, it feels great!

Dr. Hammer: What an excellent metaphor, I love that! Do you have any last thoughts or take home points for us?

Dr. Gurung: Yeah, I think the one that’s hard to do, if you have a few days or one week of class to go, but I think in general, teachers need to build and equip their tool belts, like Batman has a tool belt Wonder Woman has a range of tools, teachers need to equip their tool belts, and I think there are some great resources out there. I recently, Erin Richmond, Guy Bosen and I, put together evidence-based guides to teaching, that’s a great overview and summary of things for your tool belt. You know, hey teachers do you want to arm yourself, do you want to pick up things to do, make sure you give yourself time to read some of those evidence-based guides for good teaching because once you have a well-equipped tool belt you’re ready for just about anything…

Dr. Hammer: Dr. Gurung I always enjoy learning so much from you, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today…

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