Archive for February, 2010

In Memory of Teaching, Part 4: Thinking Like a Teacher

February 28, 2010

Still sorting out, still thinking.  I found this undated interview in my files. I have no idea where it came from, or what its beginnings were.

How do you think of yourself as a teacher?

I recognize that learners are in a period of transition and transformation, engaged by a number of unknowns, both personal and professional.  My work is to confirm the possibilities that wait for them in practice and to assure their fitness for meeting these unknowns. But I am really a teacher because I strive to illuminate values as well as tools and practices.  These values are also educative, professional acts of commitment and engagement: teaching, serving, questioning, constructing, reflecting, giving, expressing and becoming.  As a teacher, I want to communicate this to my learners:  I too am engaged by the same unknowns and values. I am always learning how to do this out loud, in public, in front of them.

What is the most important quality you strive to achieve as a teacher that makes a difference in your classroom?

Actually, there are two equally important qualities.  The first is encouragement:  I want my students to have courage and to be fearless.  This also reflects my own need and desire to allow my own intelligence to overcome my own fear. Second, I want my students to feel unfinished, and to sense that what I am teaching about is an unfinished issue, something that students have to reflect on for themselves or resolve by learning in practice.

When things are working really well (or badly) in the classroom, how can you tell?  What are the critical indicators of success in the moment?

When people talk, I feel that something has happened.  When they are silent – as they often are in my classes – I have no idea what is happening.  But silent students have told me in later years that they were engaged, moved, grateful, and happy.  So I strive not to judge on the basis of what I see. I have to trust in the invisible as all teachers do

One term I was teaching and ruminating about our Field Experience Seminar, and the learning that can be done only outside the classroom —

  • The collaborations of a workplace
  • Self-evaluation in practice, evaluating others, being evaluated by peers
  • The politics of organizations and staff members
  • Continuing to learn, continuing to think fresh thoughts amid routines

— and I started to talk with some of my materials selection class about the same things one day.  Students actually told me they felt moved by that conversation.  But I could not have predicted that; nor did I know it while it was happening.

How do I know when things are going well? Here are three circumstances:  [1] When I am putting myself at risk, saying things in fresh ways, or things I have never thought until that moment of saying them.  [2] When students are not expecting something to seize them, but it does.  I don’t know how to cause this, but I have seen it happen. [3] When I am able to discuss my own failures and lessons learned.  I have taught courses that I could not refresh sufficiently for my own growth, and so I have been disappointed in myself, and I have probably disappointed my students.

What are the challenges of teaching in a professional school, compared to a liberal arts discipline?

I want my students to understand that they are entering a world where they will be thinking a good deal about the common weal, about their own personal agency or instrumentality in the lives of others, and in making the world more workable.  And I want them to understand the nature of trust implied by public service.  One day, as I always did during my class in materials selection, I distributed the ALA document, “Libraries: An American Value,” printed on a small bookmark so students can keep it around.  Then we visited the webpage of the Freedom of Information Office at ALA.  Suddenly, and somewhat unexpectedly, I had the backbone and nervous system of my course – and all of librarianship, perhaps – right in front of the entire class, and I was able to remind them, as I like to do when we talk about libraries in America, that Thomas Jefferson had just entered the room.

What steps have you taken over the years to improve your teaching abilities?

Some things have worked, some things have not.

(1)   I have developed each syllabus as a personal document (not a perfunctory schedule). By reading it, students can hear my voice and understand my approach to teaching.  (Unfortunately my syllabi have become too large and not as useful as they once were.)

(2)   For some time I used “mid-course correction sheets,” one-page surveys asking students to tell me at mid-term what more or less of something they wanted, and how they thought they were doing, and how they thought I was doing.  (Students rarely returned them, so I stopped distributing them.)

(3)   I have used office hours to remove myself from the front of the classroom and to teach person-to-person, encouraging students to visit for conversations about anything.  As have said on my syllabi, “If you do not do this – come to see me — it will be noticed.” The best of my relationships with students have followed from these office conversations.  I will miss them.

(4)   I found that even the smallest doubt or displeasure would harm my teaching for weeks.  Consequently, after an unusual, bitter experience, I stopped reading teaching evaluations entirely, and reminded students that the time to make the class better (or to express opinions about the professor safely and usefully) was during the class, not in its final hours. I feel dreadful about student unhappiness with me; but when I am hurt or surprised by student anger or displeasure, or feeling that I have failed, I can barely teach at all.

(5)    When I can, I remind myself that play and improvisation are often the most important parts of teaching a successful class.

Did you have mentors?  Did you learn from other teachers?


In Memory of Teaching, Part 3

February 20, 2010

This is a statement from an award nomination I wrote in 2005, as I was resolving to leave teaching. I found it in my files. I did not receive the award, and I later felt humiliated not because it went to another faculty member, but because I found that I had wanted to receive it. That is another topic to address here, in the future:  wanting.  I was a teacher, and this is what I thought my work to be.

My work is to assist professional thought, reflection, and attention in cultural institutions, and to prepare learners who will go beyond their experiences in the classroom to design, contemplate, and sustain the challenges of new settings in their own ways.

The classroom is like no other place for this preparation; its distinct qualities allow learners to move forward to the edges of their thoughts about both the everyday and the extraordinary, with the welcome assistance and purpose of a teacher.  Good teaching gently invites the learner to move beyond these edges of thought safely.  The teacher allows a grounded view of the possible, and a tentative way to enter. Teaching means that the learner will not fear crossing other edges in the future, when the teacher is gone.  To teach is to assist learners to engage difficult problems and possibilities over the lifespan, fearlessly and confidently, with both their lives and their profession. I believe that both the life and the profession are instruments of possibility.

There are always human lives to renew and nurture in the classroom, including the teacher’s.  As never before, teaching has become a relationship for me that increasingly fills and heals the heart and mind.  Having come to see the classroom as a bounded frame where I am able to serve and advance the many possibilities of practice, my work as a teacher holds these challenges for me:

  • Teaching is a mix of plan and improvisation; neither plan nor improvisation has much power or value without the other.
  • True lessons are equally useful and generative across many contexts – librarianship, scholarship, individual lives, personal integrity, acts of helping and giving – all are made possible by the same integrity in the human being.  Professional work is work of the whole person.
  • Learners must be building something of their own design, not the teacher’s – or their work in the classroom is lost.

The librarian and the teacher ask the same question, What is the bridge you need to build with my help? Teaching should help to construct this bridge in these ways:

  1. Teaching should create difficult, engaging, constructive, and surprising tasks, encouraging questions, explorations and insights from the individual learner.
  2. It is important to allow some tasks to remain unfinished by design.
  3. Education requires new experiences.  Cast the everyday idea (the community, the information structure, the museum) into a new light, so it must be encountered in a new way.
  4. Assume the person in the classroom to be a learner, a person who is interested in change, able to understand the challenge, thinking for an expanding future.
  5. Assume that the person in the classroom will live up to the idea of being a learner.  In order to change, learners must unmoor themselves confidently from their past lives in schools and out.
  6. Define patterns in the landscape of the topic.  Help students to see their own patterns and footprints as learners and thinkers.
  7. A teacher should emphasize the questions, possibilities, continuities, and unfinished issues of the course.
  8. Teaching is not simply to transfer a skill, but also to transfer belief, respect and affection for the learner.  I know that in all ways, teaching resides in the “zone of proximal development” described by Vygotsky, where the learner is invited to move forward cognitively by the model and confirmation of a more advanced peer.
  9. It is irresponsible if we do not prepare professionals who are mindful of the tensions of practice:  the variable situations, definitions and values; the unexpected challenges of thorny or uneasy colleagues and supervisors; the horizonless world, where no task remains finished for long; the need for vision and courage amid the politics of communities; the critical and delicate dynamics of helping; the idea that all learning is provisional.
  10. It is responsible to express the potential for play and variation in the interpretation of a professional life. It is responsible to assume the learner to be an apprentice.

To teach has meant perpetual, if inadequate, self-renewal and challenge; I needed to change, to be better, far more than I could manage. But students inspired the art and the integrity of it, what there was.  There is an imperative accountability in teaching. It cannot be reduced in value (by the rewards of publishing or grants, for example) without risk of compromising the formative quality of the teacher’s purpose, to give as fully as possible.

The teacher’s defining qualities are therefore not only knowledge or rigor. They are kindness and generosity, a will to give away whatever of oneself can be given, and the voice to say what learners need to hear in order to recognize their own ability, confidence, and craft.


February 1, 2010

This is the introductory section for my February issue of RANews, the newsletter for readers’ advisors I edit for NoveList.

I no longer have any students but I find that I still need to say things, so I have begun to write a blog. My entries have been about teaching for these first few weeks, but I will move on to books, libraries and museums, and then to the unfinished, loose-end stories I need to understand as I strive for that integrated self so essential to a good age. My point in mentioning it here is that I never thought I would need to write personal items on the Web – I think of RA News as professional (even “library scientific”) work — but I have found it to be a wonderful challenge in my new life as a Real Writer. I will never tweet – unless I explore the constraints of the medium like haiku – no! Never! And I will happily let faces other than my own take up space on Facebook. But I do love to write this blog. And as I do, I am beginning to read with more happiness. Perhaps that is where the blog is heading, too: toward stories of my reading life.

Right now, for example, in my reading life I have been sipping at a book by a noted contemporary Irish writer John McGahern, By the Lake. The book jacket calls him the “Irish Chekhov.” I don’t recall why I bought it, but one of my recent “neglected books” lists mentioned it, so I recollected the volume from a dusty shelf and started to read. Here’s the news: nothing happens in this book (so far, and I’m halfway done). That is, people live – yes, by a lake near a village – and they interact, build things, grow things, harvest things, cook and eat things. They gossip, they regret, they visit and drink and talk and depart for home. And they talk and talk some more. But there is neither angst, nor a sudden passing away, nor crisis, nor crime to stir me: it’s a book about what happens when people live and talk to each other.

Perhaps it’s a rare  genre: novels about people at peace with themselves in a landscape, undistorted by striving for more. This reminds me of my mock resolution for the new year, “less striving in 2010,” meaning:  find contentment in yourself wherever you can. And now I am reminded of a quotation from the Dalai Lama a student included in one of the final papers I read last term, as my teaching beacon went out. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”  And so it is.