Posts Tagged ‘Practice’

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?