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We show up,
burn brightly in the moment,
hold nothing back,
and when the moment is over,
when our work is done,
we step back,
and we let go.
-Rolfe Gates, Meditations from the Mat
Beneath those flames
the charred remains
of four years of work.
Therein the ash and smoke
lie thousands of hours of
The fire ate them all
with no regard
for the size or shape of the ideas.
I stood and fed the greedy tongues
as they hissed and sputtered,
devouring it all indiscriminately–
the fire and I whispering
all of your names
on the wind.
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.”
If I had the energy I would go take a picture of something beautiful outside to share with you.
But this is all I’ve got after:
35 undergradute students in an online course
544 e-mails in the course inbox
429 e-mails in the course outbox
44 pages of instruction composed by yours truly
1933 student messages read on the discussion board
238 messages composed on the discussion board
695 pages graded
500 (and something) preschoolers met
29 graduate students supervised
2 times being bedridden with the “preschool crud”
1 honors thesis advised to completion
1 dissertation prospectus advised to successful defense
The world of academia is as weird as it is wonderful. I’ve certainly had my share of interesting jobs over the years, but I’ve never been through a process remotely akin to what I’m currently experiencing. This semester I’m up for mid-tenure review. This basically means a group of colleagues will evaluate the work I’ve done in the past two and a half years. At this stage in the game, I must articulate my teaching philosophy, detail my professional development, and summarize my scholarly accomplishments in narrative form. Then I fill a giant notebook with evidence supporting all the things I had to say about myself and I’ll set goals laying out all I wish to accomplish in the next two and a half years when I have to go through this whole process again. At that point the folks I work with will decide if I they want me to stick around for the rest of my life or if I’m fired.
Does all that sound weird to you? It does to me. But that’s pretty much how it all works.
As a result, I’ve spent a great deal of time lately sitting around contemplating the complicated task of teaching and the messiness of learning. Quite honestly, I have had no great revelations. Teaching still seems like the great three-ringed circus it was when I first started. In this ring, we have a clown juggling individual students’ needs with the needs of the class and the needs of their clients who they will be serving in the future. Step right up to see the enchantress magically transforming information into knowledge. Witness the aerialist performing anxiety-provoking feats as she walks a tightrope stretched between turbulence and order. Here come the acrobats alternating between collaboration and autonomy as they balance on horseback in an act combining strength, flexibility, and perseverance.
Did I have a hand in creating this or am I simply just a part of the show?
Maybe a bit of both, who knows. At least it will be interesting to see what happens next.