Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat 10/25/2003 1:46 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part V

(11) For this part, I'd like to start with a brief exchange of questions. A professor wrote to me asking, "Why are you referring to Sample's book on leadership so often? What does leadership have to do with teaching?" Interesting question, isn't it. Like Sample, I'm not sure how to define "leadership" any more than I do "teaching." Language is naturally messy Aristotle not withstanding. Noah Webster is of no help any more than are the lexicographers in Oxford since they all have multiple definitions of each word. So, "leadership" and "teaching" are both fly paper, "oh, you know what I mean," eelish words. I answered that professor's question with a few questions of my own: "Aren't teachers leaders? Don't we think of ourselves as leaders? Are you saying when we talk of leadership we should think of Presidents, generals, CEOs, Popes or coaches, and not of classroom teachers? Personally I think a classroom teacher is no less of a leader, and we teachers ought to get bullish on leadership principles and not just focus on information and methodology."

As I have been sharing this multi-part reflection on teaching, I hope everyone realizes that I'm not trying, or I hope I'm not trying, to tell anyone just what is teaching or what to do. I am just trying to share my experience that teaching and teachers are proverbial works in progress and trying to get you think about something that too often has been non-descript.

So, I am going way, way, way out on a limb and am going to redefine teaching excellence. It's a position based on forty years of being in the classroom, fifty-nine if you include my years as a student beginning in my pre-nursery days. I've had the privilege of experiencing a decade of challenging, no-holds-barred, and stimulating engagements with classroom and administrative educators at premier conferences on collegiate teaching. I've had the equally exciting opportunity of working and exchanging with other academics as I presented workshops in collegiate teaching on campuses throughout the country, Canada, and England. And finally, I've had the ultimate privilege of working with, teaching, and learning from over 350 students each year.

The all too often current model of teaching in higher education is limited to an avowed functional model of transmitting information and developing what's called critical thinking and problem solving intellectual skills with an all too often little regard for the human dimension. If we honestly look at college classrooms, most appear to operate with the belief that students cannot be trusted to learn without careful supervision if not tight control, and most control is exercised by talking and professor devised exams and a far from objective grading system. Few treat the classroom as a living community and therefore don't consider the human resources waiting to be tapped. Classes work the way they do because of the way professor and student, student and student relate to or "work with" each other. In most classes, too often students get "just do" exhortation rather than a "why" persuasion; they get a physical presence of the professor far more than a professor's personal commitment to each of them. There is so often a lack of an ecological structure.

I am redefining teaching in interpersonal terms rather than in informational, technological, or methodological terms. The transmission and reception of information may be among the essential products to be sure, but they are not the only essential products and they are not the critical processes.

Let's be honest. Professors with Ph.D.s and long scholarly resumes standing at the head of the class are not automatically good teachers. I strongly feel we have to distinguish authority from teaching. The best of the teachers do not lead by virtue of the power of their information bank, scholarly reputation, professional titles, position, or authority. The best of the teachers lead by being masters in the art of human relationship. The essence of teaching is the same as that of leadership: communication. What makes great leaders great is the same thing that makes great teachers great, but is divorced from what makes for great scholars great. It is not merely their bank of information; it is not merely their intellectual prowess; in academe it is not mere research skills. It is not merely what they know; it is not merely what they do; it is how they do it and how they effect the moods and emotions of others. The great teachers, like the great leaders, are great leaders of people. They are the great communicators in that they are the great connectors. It is the simple and yet profound fact that great teachers move students, or better yet, move students to move themselves; they do their work through both their emotions and that of the students. That is significant. That is what separates the journeyman from the master, the talking head from the teacher. For a teacher to be effective, he or she needs to touch student's hearts.

The best of the best teachers are servant teachers with a student first pedagogy. It is an extremely difficult and challenging pedagogy. Such a teacher nurtures relationships in the belief that their fundamental task is to help students do more together than they could individually.

Now, let me say from the outset that there are a lot of good educators in the classroom who come on campus wanting to make a difference, but don't really achieve that they intend. I think the reasons, however complex, are what I have already ennumerated, but I'd like to give you a quick repetitive listing. First, most teachers don't look inside themselves where making a difference really begins. Second, they have to be purpose-based rather than merely purpose-stating so that everything they think and do refers back to their purpose which is the true source of authority and criteria of everything they think, feel, and do. The vision thing is a process not an event. You can't go off and write a vision statement and then go back to work. There's no point to it unless they spend 20 to 40 percent of their time continually reflecting on on and articulate what it is they're really trying to create. It's never ending. Third, they have to have ways of sticking out their necks and articulating an image of the future as a means of determining what they must do. This is where the passion comes from: working to make a difference, to have an impact, to make a contribution, to creat a legacy, to change the world, to alter the future. Fourth, they must be willing, have the strength and courage to admit "this ain't working," and then abandon what which doesn't work. That is, to recognize that experimentation, innovation, and creativity is a process of "failure." Fifth, here is where I struggle, they must have assessment. But, assessment involves both measurement and interpretation, and interpretation means understanding, involvement, and being on the scene. Fifth, they must not only be advocates of inquiry, but inquirers, for genuine inquiry starts with someone who asks a question for which he or she doesn't have an answer. Sixth, they have to break mindless, it-has-always-been-so, going-through-the-motions, unthinging habit. In its place, they have to acquire a discipline of dedication, commitment, perseverance, passion, practice, and patience that are the ingredients for change, growth, development, learning. And finally, they have to realize that they are perpetuating an industrial-age, assembly line system in which what goes for education it is not actually about learning, it is about getting ahead, figuring out the right answers, avoiding the wrong answers, not making mistakes and, above all, pleasing the teacher.

The best of the teachers have looked and continue to look inside, reflecting on their own lives inside and outside the classroom as well as on and off the campus. They've looked and continue to look at the past, present and gaze into the future; they've thought about the challenges and their own dedication and commitment; they've thought and continue to think about how things and people would be if they just get "it" right; and in the end, having gotten past their fear that they could not touch anyone or anything, they grasped a vision, tapped a passion and a courage, decided they were "in," and "anted up."

They inspire the students to give whatever it takes as do they. They sense the feelings and needs and perspectives of each student. Such teachers have a knack for creating a climate of enthusiasm and flexibility and optimism. They have a sense of timing and know when to listen, when to jump in, when to talk, when to practice tough love, when to be patient, when not to be empathetic or sympathetic, when to bend, when to lay down the law, when to go one on one, when to discuss. They invite students to be at their most innovative, imaginative, and creative. They challenge themselves to be at their msot innovative, imaginative, and creative. They understand they are in a nest of fledglings. They understand or at least are aware of these fledglings' dilemas, perils, pressures. They offer benefits that go beyond gathering information and honing "critical thinking" and "problem solving" skills. They are avid listeners who listen closely and well and always because they know how to quiet their mind. They understand that students experimenting with and developing new habits require safe places and safe relationships between them and each students as well as among students. Understanding that when stress is high and sustained learning diminishes, they make it safe for these fledgling learners to spread their wings, to try no styles, to tap new strengths, to draw on new confidences, to use new imaginations; they often rely heavily, as I do, on what might be called stealth learning or implied learning. Some students would describe it as "tricked into learning."

Such a teacher knows how to use his or her talents and abilities at the right time, in the right way, with the right person or persons. They have that sense when to listen and when to lay down the law, when to discuss and when to sermonize, when give in and when to stand firm. When a teacher focuses on people, that teacher creates a supportive, encouraging, and caring environment. They become boosters of morale, self-confidence, and self-esteem. An invisible bond is created based on a belief in themselves, among others, and with what they are doing. Never forget or neglect the fact that if a teacher is enthusiastic about each student, the students will have a better chance of soaring; if a teacher creates an anxious environment, students generally will be on their guard, off-balance, off-stride. Emotions have a real significant and real consequence for getting both the teaching job and learning job done.

To paraphrase Napoleon, teachers are dealers in faith and hope. The challenge, then, is for the person who wishes to master teaching to reach inside him/herself to the source of his or her hope and faith and to help each student do likewise. But, more to the point, the teacher has to have the confidence to embrace and act upon that hope and help the students do likewise. The teacher helps students to help increase their confidence that they don't have to be stuck in the mud of "that's just me" and can change. To be able to do that requires not only a purpose, a vision, and a mission, it demands as clear a picture of the realities the teacher is facing. That is, it demands that the teacher struggle to know him/herself, each student, and the culture that envelopes them all.

And finally, there is an inordinate power in relationships. No one is an island. As an historian, I know of no innovation that was not the result of energized collaboration be it in the arts, science, business, military, agriculture, government. The master teacher creates classroom community in which there is a psychological atmosphere of togetherness, mutual respect, mutual support and encouragement, mutual honesty, and mutual trust. It offers the best path to change, growth, learning, and development. This kind of teacher creates a community of students who are venturing out together, who are walking the same path, and who are helping each other along that path.

In classes this week, I saw today presentations of the Hollywood Project in which each community of students displayed a freedom to experiment with little risk of embarrassment or fear of the consequences of failure. It was as if they were saying to each other, "Hey, we're in this together. You overcame your shyness, your fears and took a risk. I can do the same thing. I can be free to try something risky myself. We're there for each other."

It's important to understand that everything I've said is not a matter of a checklist to be marked off one at a time. Too often we see it that way. Teaching is not something mechanical and the issues are not separate, unrelated, and static tableaus. We teach in a living world of living beings. The matters I'm talking about are a totality with interrelated, interdependent, dynamic and organic components. Dealing with one issue touches upon and gets reaction from all the others. You can't focus on one and ignore another no matter how much you may try or wish. That's the nature of living organisms. It's called "wholeness." And if you lack an appreciation of the student or education as a whole, you will have little positive impact or may even make matters worse.

Does my definition of teaching run counter to a lot of insight and wisdom about teaching out there? No. Does it challenge the majority of the thinking about and doing of teaching. Yes. Am I asking you to buy into any or all of what I am sharing? No. Am I asking you think about what I am saying? Yes. Just remember, no one should say either anyone can teach or teaching is talking or teaching isn't tough.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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