a reflection of hills and trees in a lake

Reflecting on Self-Reflection

“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” So runs the saying. But, like many such aphorisms, it is not so much the product of thought as a substitute for it. 

In fact, we all know it isn’t true. Teaching law simply requires a different skill set from that involved in practising law. A person who boasts one of those sets of skills does not necessarily have the other. 

Adjunct Professors

New adjunct professors soon experience this truism for themselves. In fact, almost every adjunct with whom I have worked is quickly astonished by the level of work involved. If they take the role of teaching at all seriously, those who had previously assumed that their experience of practice would translate seamlessly into a preparedness to teach soon find themselves disabused of that notion. 

So long as they can put aside sufficient time to make the necessary adjustments, some adjuncts actually find that this difference in the required skill sets makes teaching an even more attractive proposition than they had imagined. Whether they had previously felt that they were unable to utilize their full range of talents while practising law, or whether they find that teaching opens the door to an unexpectedly new and exciting world, some adjuncts simply find teaching more exciting and rewarding than the world of practice. 

Unfortunately, some adjunct professors find that they just never get to grips with teaching at all. They just don’t have the time (or, in some cases, the inclination) to learn the new skill set that is required. 

Student Preferences

Teaching evaluations of full-time and adjunct faculty at Stetson clearly bear this out. On the whole, our students much prefer to be taught by the former than by the latter. Indeed, despite the siren call from many quarters that law students should undergo much more experiential learning (usually supervised or taught by practitioners), it is actually quite a struggle to get our students to sign up for such opportunities. 

Stetson is certainly not unique in either regard. So that raises the questions of what makes a good teacher, and how does that differ from what makes a good practitioner. 

Reflections

I have been reflecting on these questions on and off throughout this semester as we have been interviewing a number of candidates for several non-doctrinal positions (Clinics Director, Trial Team Director, and Director of Bar Preparation). The candidates have ranged from the poor to the stellar and, interestingly, there was a very strong measure of agreement among the faculty as to who placed where. 

A significant number of those interviewed were current or recent practitioners, all with apparently outstanding records. But, naturally enough, they did not all come across as equally likely to succeed as teachers. In fact, one factor made all the difference: a habit of self-reflection. 

Self-Reflection

Whether someone has developed a habit of self-reflection becomes particularly clear when they are asked a question like: “How would you teach someone to be a good interviewer/advocate/mediator/test-taker, etc?” 

Those who have not developed a habit of self-reflection respond by listing the types of skills involved in becoming successful at those endeavors, but say nothing about how they expect to teach those skills. When pressed further, they resort to statements like: “I’ll make sure the students work hard” or “I’ll make sure that the students act ethically.” But they cannot explain how they will achieve these goals. 

A Prerequisite

Those who have developed a habit of reflection, on the other hand, respond by outlining their teaching methodology, usually illustrated with examples. Those who are so habitually self-reflective that they cannot stop themselves will also go on to offer at least a tentative explanation of why a particular teaching method is likely to fail or succeed. 

Unless that explanation is truly ludicrous or suggests that the candidate is off with the fairies, it really doesn’t matter whether I agree with it. What I am looking for is someone sufficiently thoughtful and intellectually agile not only to be constantly evaluating whether their approach is succeeding, but also to be striving to tune even an apparently successful approach into something even better. 

Teaching and Doing

There is, in another words, a fundamental difference between teaching and doing. If I am successful in what I do, and I have no interest in teaching others, there is probably very little reason to ask myself how and why I succeed. Indeed, it might prove counter-productive to ask such questions, because then I might become too self-conscious to continue to be effective. 

But teaching is a very different activity. It’s no longer just about me. I now have to identify what it is that has made me successful in order to work out how to teach others how to replicate my success. But other people have different personalities, and have different experiences of life from me. And students’ personalities and experiences also differ from one another. 

In short, I need to be able to externalize and make explicit what I have been doing. Without a habit of self-reflection, the best I can offer is “watch and copy” — a method that breaks down as soon as something happens that the observer has never seen before. 

While a habit of self-reflection is not, in itself, a guarantee of success of a teacher, it is certainly a prerequisite. Those without it need not apply.