Borrowing (Not Stealing) Teaching Techniques

By Anne Sullivan |

“All good teaching is stealing.” Many of us have probably heard some version of that advice. A more accurate and generative aphorism, however, might go something like this: “all good teaching is borrowing, building, and giving credit.” One of the joys of teaching is realizing that you don’t have to design an exciting in-class activity or troubleshoot problems with classroom management all on your own. You are part of a large community of educators who share their strategies for designing courses, planning lessons, providing feedback, and promoting student engagement.

[Image Description: Actor Marlee Matlin saying and signing “I just want to thank all of you” at the 1987 Academy Awards ceremony.]

Pictured: You, remembering all the fellow teachers who have helped you become the awesome educator you are today! 

Rather than prescribing the best ethical practices for borrowing teaching techniques, this blog post encourages you to reflect on how you want to credit your fellow teachers. Each of us will approach the questions below differently, however, because we face different challenges with student perceptions. As one recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education reminds us, faculty of color and adjuncts are more likely to experience challenges to their “authority, expertise, and teaching skill[s].” Student perceptions of our authority may vary when we share our gratitude for peers, mentors, and sources that helped us design our course or lesson plan, so proceed with these reflection questions in ways that make the most sense to you. I hasten to add that I am also reflecting on these questions and considering new strategies for keeping track of how I borrow, adapt, and build from teaching techniques.

Shoutouts and Footnotes

Have you considered using shoutouts or footnotes? When I was a TA in the University Writing Program, I gave verbal shoutouts to the peers and mentors who helped me design my syllabi (e.g. “Thanks to Gretchen Bartels, Wallace Cleaves, and Tracy Zuniga for sharing their materials with me as I created this class on fairy tales”). Sometimes I added “Adapted from [Name]” in the footer section of handouts and essay prompts, a strategy that I surely learned from someone else (e.g. “Adapted from a Storify assignment by Sarah Laiola,” or, “This Discussion Facilitation assignment builds from assignments by Ann Garascia and Susan Zieger”). I still give shoutouts in class sessions (and in TA Development Program workshops), but keeping track of citations through memory and shoutouts alone started to feel unmanageable. I began preferring the footnote method because it helped me ensure that the citation stayed with the assignment (instead of getting lost in one of my many notebooks).

Syllabus Acknowledgements Section

Have you considered including an acknowledgements section on your syllabus? Again, I know I learned this strategy from someone else. See how easy it is to lose track of good ideas? Maybe a fellow instructor told me, or maybe I read about it in an article or on Twitter, but the idea stuck. When I developed my “Picturing the Universe” literature and visual culture syllabus as a postdoctoral instructor at Caltech, I added an acknowledgements section because resources (such as literary anthologies) and the generosity of peers and mentors helped me develop my ideas and experiment with new texts or assignments. In other words, all the work I put into creating that syllabus was only possible due to the incredible work of other people. Writing that acknowledgement section felt celebratory and rewarding, not onerous, and I decided to include acknowledgement sections on my future syllabi.

[Image Description: The character David Rose from Schitt’s Creek says “Thank you so much” while wearing an iconic black and brown sweater.]

Pictured: Thank the wonderful colleagues who help you develop as a teacher!


When did you last reflect on how your experiences as a student have shaped how you learn and how you want to teach? When you attend pedagogy workshops at TADP, XCITE, or elsewhere, the facilitators may ask: Who was your most memorable teacher? How did they help you reach your goals and make you feel included in the classroom? What was your most memorable learning experience? These questions are meant to help you bridge the gap between your experiences as a student and your strategies as a teacher. By reflecting on our previous experiences with learning, we can identify strategies to emulate and build from (or, in some cases, identify techniques to avoid). Your reflections need not focus solely on college instructors. Perhaps an Elementary, Middle, or High School Teacher influenced your approach to learning. Perhaps a dance teacher or a soccer coach modeled expert teaching strategies that you can build from. When you do this kind of reflection, you may want to keep notes (as you’ll see in the final section below).

[Image Description: Vice President Kamala Harris says “Let’s reflect on that” while standing in front of two American flags.]

Pictured: Take time to reflect on your experiences as a student.

Keeping Notes

Returning to a list of your influences or reading a narrative of your journey as both a student and teacher can be generative during dispiriting times, spark ideas for a class activity, or help you write documents like a Teaching Statement (for more on Teaching Statements, please consider consulting the following: Lauren Hammond’s blog post on “Writing Academic Job Materials,” Barbara Junisbai’s keynote address from the 2022 Teaching Careers Week, and the Graduate Writing Center’s guidelines for Career and Job Market Writing Resources). In the past few years, I’ve thought more about how citations are bound to get lost as we move to new institutions, order different textbooks, create new assignments, update software, or upgrade to a new computer. I have not developed a perfect system yet, but lately I have been considering creating a “Teaching Acknowledgements” document that I update periodically by recording how mentors, peers, students, and scholars continue to help me with my teaching.