Last semester, doctoral candidate Margaret Montgomery was awarded the 2020 College of Arts & Sciences Outstanding Teaching by a Doctoral Student Award. This spring Montgomery’s name was forwarded to the university-wide competition, where recently she was named The The University of Alabama’s Outstanding Graduate Student Teacher of the Year.
Montgomery is advised by Drs. Andrew Huebner and Holly Grout. Her dissertation, ““Trading Silk for Khaki: The Last Years of the Women’s Army Corps and the Contest Over Soldier Womanhood, 1963-1978,” explores how the US Army reconciled the concept of the woman soldier in the last two decades of the Women’s Army Corps’ existence and how that concept was both reified and challenged by women in uniform as well as by American society as a whole during the turbulent 1960s and 70s. She has taught seven classes as an instructor of record for the Department of History and served as a graduate teaching assistant in thirteen other courses.
Recently, Assistant Professor Lucy Kaufman set down with Montgomery to discuss her teaching philosophy.
Kaufman: What do you think are the essential components of being a good teacher?
Montgomery: First and foremost you have to care about your students. I don’t think you can be a great teacher if you do not sincerely want your students to do well inside and outside of the classroom. Helping them master material is great, but a truly wonderful classroom is where students also grow as individuals. You also have to care about what you’re teaching and let your excitement about the material shine. It always helps to not take yourself too seriously–the more your students see that you’re human the better. Perhaps the biggest tool in the toolbox for great teaching is relying on your community of teachers. Some of my most successful approaches in the classroom have actually come from seeing other teachers work and from conversations with other educators. You have to be willing to try new things and be comfortable with falling flat on your face at times. As long as you dust off your shoulders and learn from failure, then you can focus on making the next class better.
Kaufman: When I was first starting out, I used to worry about having a perfect class and tried to stick to a strict lesson plan. I began to realize that flexibility brought a class to life. Is that something you’ve experienced? How do you balance between imparting a lesson and being spontaneous?
Montgomery: Oh, starting out I had strict expectations about what the class would be like, even down to what I expected my students to say in response to questions. And when I had a class discussion that went really well I tried to do the exact same approach in the next class. Often it failed because every group of students is different and responds differently to questions and materials. It’s more fun to be flexible. While lecturing you could notice a raised eyebrow in the room and then pivot to expand on what you’re talking about, or open up for questions. Likewise, you have to be flexible if you realize you have completely lost the classroom so you can adjust and explain things in a different way. The balance is always elusive, but I find that keeping questions open ended and being mindful of student reactions helps you adapt to your students’ needs.
Kaufman: Why do you want to teach?
Montgomery: I love the challenge of teaching and find it so rewarding and fun. I live for the moments where I see students getting excited about the material. Oddly, I also enjoy the moments when I get eye-rolls or see students not caring, because that means I get to experiment with how to get their attention. Teaching is something that never stays the same. There are always new approaches, new material, and new students. Perhaps most importantly, teachers have the power to help students feel seen. I had a professor while a student at Sewanee who took me aside and told me that I had talent in historical analysis. I eventually became a history major because of him. I try my best to teach by his example and let students know that I see them more than just a learner in the classroom, but as a whole person. It’s a teacher’s super power.
Kaufman: How do you bring your research into the classroom?
Montgomery: I’ll never forget a student evaluation that said that I was a charismatic teacher but I focused too much on race and gender and “not real history.” I wear that as a badge of honor. I find that the best way I can bring my research into the classroom is not by giving lectures on the Women’s Army Corps (though that would be fun), but rather by introducing the themes of gender and race into the overarching narrative. Helping students see that gender and race are important things to consider along with the more “traditional” themes of history is the best part of my job.
Kaufman: If you could give new teachers one piece of advice, what would it be?
Montgomery: My go-to advice for new teachers boils down to two things: one, do not be afraid to ask for help. There is a whole community of educators not only in your program, but everywhere, who can be great resources for trouble-shooting problems in the classroom and who can provide emotional support. Teachers never have to teach entirely on their own. And two, always err on the side of compassion. I think we can fall into the trap of being more of an investigator than a teacher when it comes to students needing help. I’d much rather get the wool pulled over my eyes a handful of times than to be so rigid as to deny students compassion and help when they need it.