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Letter to A First-Time (Legal Research) Instructor

Dear Friend,

Seven years ago this week, I was prepping madly to teach my first legal research class.  Three months earlier, I'd been a law student myself.  To say that I was nervous is an understatement; mildly terrified was probably a more apt description.  The truth is I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but I knew that I wanted to teach legal research differently than I had been taught legal research, where at best it was viewed as a skill less important than everything else being taught at law school and at worst an afterthought, a skill that students should be able to do with very little training. 

There are many points I wish I knew then that I know now and that's what I want to share with you today. 

First and foremost, students will forgive many imperfections in the classroom if they know you care about their learning.  At the start of every semester, I re-read Kent Syverud's "Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers," 43 J. Legal Educ. 247 (1993), recommended to me by Professor Susan Kuo, a colleague at the University of South Carolina School of Law, early in my career.  Syverud gives three propositions about teaching, which have all proved true in my experience:
    • "Your students will know whether you like and respect them, and if they know that you do not, you will fail as a teacher."[1]
    • "If your students know that you like and respect them, they will forgive a great deal in the classroom."[2]
    • "If your students know that you like and respect them, they will come to you for as much advice and support as you have the time and energy to provide."[3]
Caring can be shown in any number of ways, no matter how introverted or extroverted you might be, including setting clear expectations, showing some empathy to the challenges inherent to being a law student, being accessible for questions and concerns students might have, or sharing your own excitement for your subject matter.

Second, it's okay not to know everything; you know enough or you wouldn't be the one at the front of the class.  Imposter syndrome in the classroom is no joke.  Most of us feel it at one point or another (I would even go to so far as to say that if you do feel it, you're probably doing something right).  But you were hired for your expertise and are there because you have knowledge that you can share with your students.

That being said, it's absolutely okay to say you don't know the answer to a question and it actually models to students that it's normal not to have all the answers--something many law students struggle with.  After class, find the answer to share in the next meeting.  Your students will appreciate your forthrightness and your humanity.

Third, knowing enough isn't enough to make you a good teacher.  Even with all the expertise in the world, it takes work to be a good teacher, a person who is able to help another person gain expertise in that area.  In fact, studies show that experts oftentimes have a difficult time teaching novices because our brains can make leaps that the novice learner's brain cannot.  To be a good teacher, you have to put some thought into how learners learn--and not rely just on how information was conveyed when you were the learner.  Ask yourself how you can help your students retain their learning long-term, how you can engage them, and how you can support them in their learning. Sure, it can be scary to try new things in the classroom, but keep in mind that first and most important point--that as long as students can tell that you care about their learning, they'll going to forgive a learning strategy that may fall flat in its first iteration.

Fourth, you're not alone.  We all start somewhere and as long as you're dedicating time and space to working on becoming the best teacher you can be, you're doing something right. Additionally, there's a network of law school professors who care and thinking deeply about their teaching and who are dedicated to moving legal education toward a curricular model centered around helping students learn.  No doubt there are also some in your law school building.  Find those folks, share ideas, learn from them, and thank them.  

I know you can do this, even if you're mildly terrified like I was once upon a time.

[1] Kent D. Syverud, Taking Students Seriously: A Guide for New Law Teachers, 43 J. Legal Educ. 247, 247 (1993).

[2] Id. at 248.

[3] Id.

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