Nicole Matos

Partner at Collegium Consulting at

Making the Most of Your Teaching Demo

Full school of rock

Image: The School of Rock (2003)

The teaching demonstration is one of the most artificial segments of a job seeker’s campus interview yet also one of the most telling and evocative.

Typically, teaching demos can range anywhere from a brief 15 or 20 minutes to a full class period. The better ones involve a class of actual students; the more awkward demos involve search-committee members pretending to be students. Often job candidates are given a set topic to teach; other times you might be given free rein to choose your topic.

Teaching demos are artificial for a number of obvious reasons:

  • The students are not really “yours.”
  • The demo time materializes as a sort of interregnum with no future and no past.
  • And, perhaps most horrifying for the job candidate, the demo is a one-shot deal: There’s no taking a mulligan if things go wrong, and little chance ahead of time to predict the ways they might.

But having observed many teaching demonstrations as a community-college faculty member and administrator, I would still wholeheartedly defend the practice, perhaps for exactly these reasons — that it happens among strangers, in a kind of unpredictable, accentuated present. I think teaching demos communicate a lot about a would-be professor, and offer insights on classroom performance that interviews and more scripted job talks simply can’t.

The good news for job seekers, I’d also argue, is that the teaching demonstration is a forum in which your strategic decisions can make an enormous difference. Over the years, the most successful teaching demos I’ve witnessed have had a number of traits in common, and those traits are replicable regardless of how long your demo is, or who is in the audience. Taken together they represent a best practices of teaching demos. While I don’t think candidates should incorporate strategies that feel truly alien to their teaching style — inauthenticity is a death knell that supersedes any other advice here! — it may be worth adding some of these suggestions to your repertory.

First and Foremost, Interact. The No. 1 thing I want to see from a demo is the manner in which teachers interact with students. Any teaching mode that will minimize or delay student discussion and inquiry— cough, lecture; cough, Powerpoint presentation — is probably not the best choice for your teaching demo. Students are often quite sympathetic to the plight of a job seeker and may be more forthcoming than you might expect. But it is equally possible that they will be reticent and unnerved, unsure how to negotiate this unusual scene.

For that reason, the best teaching demos I’ve observed find clever ways to call on students for answers and reactions, without waiting (sometimes interminably) for eager volunteers. One strategy I’ve seen used to great effect is to bring materials for students to make name-cards. It is much more inviting to say, “Keisha, what are your experiences with that?” than “You — no, you in the red shirt.” Creating a kind of assumed first-name familiarity, even where longstanding familiarity doesn’t really exist, often works as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Another strategy that works well is to poll the class at-large, perhaps with a verbal or written round robin (“What’s the No. 1 question you have about X?”). Remember, too, that quality interaction ought to follow patterns other than just “professor, student; professor, student.” Gently encourage students to converse with one another: “Julia, what was the most convincing part of Keisha’s argument? Ted, what might be the weakness of Keisha’s argument if you were going to argue the other side?” Do that well, and you will never have to ask for volunteers — both because you aren’t waiting around for them and because volunteers will press themselves upon you, interested in entering an exchange already under way.

Manage Your Classroom. I do not mean that you should expect disciplinary problems in your demo — with a cartload of faculty and administrators in observation, that is almost never a problem. I mean, rather, that you should demonstrate a certain comfort level with your own authority.

One useful principle to remember: Own the classroom space. Don’t unconsciously limit “your domain” to the front of the room, or worse yet, behind a lectern or a desk. Plan a lesson that will give you excuses to work the room — to walk up and down the aisles, to teach from the back or the side, or to approach small groups or clusters of students in a manner that is more up-close and personal.

Unless you are told otherwise, don’t be afraid to rearrange furniture or humans (with warmth and humor, of course) to better create the physical environment that would most compliment your teaching. A candidate who says, for example, “rearrange your desks in a circle” and then waits to ensure that students comply (“Brenda, could you do me a favor and come to this seat; I just want to be able to see you a little better”) is exercising the right kind of judgment. And since these are not your students and their routines are not your routines, be aware that you may have to be a little more explicitly directive than you normally are. I have often seen candidates give a vague instruction, like “make some groups,” when a more effective statement might be, “Count off in groups of three beginning with Tyrese.” It’s better to be just a wee bit bossy than stuck in a classroom set-up that’s less than ideal for your demo.

Privilege the Present. Some candidates overcompensate for the insecurity inherent in a teaching demo by trying too hard to plan and predetermine how students will respond. In the heat of the moment, I’ve seen candidates ask for questions, but with clear body language that suggests the last thing they want is any pesky, scary, unpredictable questions. I’ve also heard candidates bulldoze over an unexpected comment and twist it into the response they had hoped to hear (“Student: “I’d say no.” Professor: “Yes is just the right answer!”).

It is equally tempting to construct a lesson that is so tightly controlled, perhaps so predictable or easy, that there is simply no room for any sort of surprise or discovery. But without surprise or discovery, there is no learning. Perhaps the “teaching demo” should be better understood as a “learning demo” — in your demo, I want to see students learning, with all the immediacy and transformation that implies, more than I want to see you teaching in some intransitive sense.

Most impressive to me, then, are demos in which students are engaged in some kind of activity. Lessons that involve hands-on role-playing, case studies, scenarios, in-class debate, or in-class writing are all ones that tend to work well.

I am particularly impressed when a candidate reacts in real time to something that has just burbled up. Your original small groups of three are surprisingly divisive and unable to reach consensus? Stop the presses and explore that: Reseat the groups by “Pros” and “Cons,” or shift the lesson from “find agreement” to “articulate the complexities.” A student raises an excellent example you hadn’t considered? Take a moment to pull up a quick webpage or video, right there on the fly, so that everyone can benefit from this insight. In short, don’t be so wedded to your teaching plan that you miss the opportunities that the present affords.

Pretend a Future and Past. To combat the weird decontextualized form of a single stand-alone lesson, don’t be afraid to gesture toward or even explicitly devise a pretend “before” and “after” for your demo. The most canny candidates provide the search committee, and sometimes even the students, with a suggested preliminary lesson plan (if this were really your class, what would have been the unit immediately preceding this demo, and how would you have gotten there?) and a suggested follow-up assignment or series of next steps (if you had had more time or were continuing this unit, what activities would naturally follow?).

This gesture toward continuity reinforces the understanding that real teaching is not a one-off act, and that effective lessons grow out of a unified whole. It also subtly primes the search committee to think more about your future and your continuity as an effective educator, which is not a bad thing when seeking a job.

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