The more I teach and read about teaching, the less I seem to know about the topic. Three books I read in 2012 about teaching taught me quite a lot…and left me with many, many more questions…
In Teaching with Your Mouth Shut, Finkle invites us to recall our most significant learning experiences. Only one of the
three I recalled happened in a classroom, which supported his point – most of our learning happens outside the classroom. Finkle contends “good teaching is the creation of those circumstances that lead to significant learning in others.” This focus takes the sage off the stage and brings learners front and center. In his model of teaching, learning occurs by first engaging students with problems to solve and then through the process of mutual inquiry and discussion.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and I applied his advice about teaching in the classroom by reducing lecture time and providing students with case studies to contemplate, research, and discuss. After two semesters of experimenting with this in three different classes, I came to the conclusion that the majority of my students do not particularly appreciate this form of learning. Some do (mostly honors students), but most expect the structure and predictability of classroom lectures along with the opportunity lectures afford to tune out and covertly text under the desk.
Ultimately, I was left with more questions than answers from Finkel’s advice about teaching: How do I meet the needs of such a wide array of learners? Should we give students what they want or what we think they need? Can I strike an effective balance between the two? Is the Socratic method of teaching still relevant in this era of edutainment? Why do students write such horrible things in their course evaluations? Is it because I am a horrible teacher? How good are students at evaluating what they have learned? When should I practice “tough love” and when should I show compassion? And when is that tough love and compassion the exact same thing? What in the world are we even measuring with course evaluations — my teaching ability? Student perceptions? Teacher popularity?
…and just as I was having this existential crisis in my teacher’s heart, two more books came along to guide me through it:
Push is the debute novel by Sapphire, on which the movie Precious is based. I have yet to see the movie, but I experienced the story via audiobook. The audio version was a good one — I enjoyed listening to the music and rhythm of the dialect. The story itself was one of the most disturbing I have come across. In the words of Precious, the main character,
“I don’t know what “realism” mean but I do know what REALITY is and it’s a mutherfucker, lemme tell you.”
And boy, did she. Precious’ reality was a bleak place of incest/rape, abuse, ignorance, and disability. It is definitely not a tale for the faint of heart. There was all sorts of darkness in her story that I did not want to face. There was also a small, but persistent ray of light: the power of compassion and education to propel us through the abyss. It was a much needed reminder.
And finally, Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach found me and forced me to break out the journal and take notes. Palmer’s writing is masterful. He illuminates a wide range of subjects – social constructivism, empiricism, epistemology, genetics, spirituality – with simple and beautiful language. He confirms that:
“Good education teaches students to become both producers of knowledge and discerning consumers of what other people claim to know.”
He writes of the importance of conflict in teaching and of holding open spaces where we can grapple with paradoxical tensions. In this space of turmoil – in this tension of opposites there is:
“a power that wants to pull [the] heart open to something larger than itself.”
And “suffering is neither to be avoided nor merely to be survived, but must be actively embraced for the way it expands our own hearts.” He writes of pulling both teachers and students from center stage and putting “great things” at the center, then teaching and learning those great things from a place of humility.
“We experience humility not because we have fought and lost but because humility is the only lens through which great things can be seen – and once we have seen them, humility is the only posture possible.”
I cannot say enough about how good this book was. I will definitely be reading all of his works in the coming year.
So as this year winds down and a new one begins, I resolve to embrace my teacher’s heart crisis and learn what I can from this “great thing.”