Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon 10/4/2004 4:40 PM
Random Thought: What does it take to be a teacher: An Interview

A couple of weeks ago, I receive a telephone call from a student attending a western university whom I didn't know. He introduced himself and told me that he had an assignment to write a paper for his teaching in higher education class based on an interview with a college professor. He didn't want to talk with anyone at his institution. So, he found me by surfing the web. He asked if he could ask me a bunch of questions and tape our conversation. I agree. He asked and I answered. Today, I received a transcript of those portions of our conversation that he used as the basis of his paper. I'd like to share it with you.

"Okay, Dr. Schmier, let's begin. What does it take to be a teacher at the college level?"

"Well, you don't have to have any education courses as long as you have the credentials in your discipline. For me, I have found during the past eleven years that's not enough. It's not enough to be 'subject smart' and 'technology smart' however important they are. And, important they are."

"But, don't you have to know your subject?"

"Sure, but just because you know it doesn't mean you can teach it. That's a myth. A second myth that's going around as gospel is that to be a good teacher you have to be a good scholar. If that's the case, I guess very, very few k through 12 teachers are good at what they do. No, scholarship, that is, research and publication, require one set of skills that are divorced from the skills required of teaching."

"That's what I want to know. What are those skills you need for teaching?"

"You've got to be a 'people-holic,' that is, you've got to be a compassionate people person with lots of 'people smarts.' But, above all, you've got to be a sprite spirit and have a joyous love of living life. A decade ago, I wrote a Random Thought I called 'To Be A Teacher.' You can read it on the website where all the RTs are archived. After all these years, if I have a favorite Random Thought among the over 500 out there in cyberspace, it's that one. Towards the end of it, I wrote my strategy, 'If you want to be a teacher, make all those marvelous feelings and images an intimate part of you and bring them into the classroom with you and share them.' That's why not everyone can be a teacher and why just because you know your discipline you can teach it."

"I've read that you weren't always this way."

"Gosh, no. I was once an accomplished scholarly 'researchoholic' and 'publishoholic,' a lecturing 'talkoholic, and a 'testoholic!'"

"When did you change and why?"

"It happened in October, 1991, but is this pertinent to your paper?"

"No, not really. I'm just curious."

......You know, I'm so lucky and I do humbly appreciate it. I'm so happy. I am so lucky that I found a way of making a living that's a way of living, a way of authentically doing and being at the same time in the same place. I am doggone lucky."

"Well, if you've already changed, where do you go now?"

"Not 'already changed,' but 'changing,' that is, evolving to reach my own unique potential as I help each student help himself to reach his or her own. It never stops. My change was not a big-bang event. It's a process of growth. It's a journey. Where do I go? I go back into the classroom tomorrow and continue my journey of growing and learning."

"A teacher learning in the classroom? I thought it was the teacher who teaches."

"And learns. I invite the energies and talents of each student into my thinking and learn from them. I don't know it all. Nothing works all the time. Nothing is accepted and applauded by everyone. Nothing always runs smoothly. I'm always trying things out. There are always jolting bumps and potholes in the road. There's always the unexpected."

"Doesn't that pose a problem if you're not prepared for those problems?"

"Well, I'm prepared for problems to appear, although I don't know what they might be. But, none of that is the problem."

"What is?"

"Our attitude. It's our attitude towards those potholes and bumps, towards the challenging, towards the unexpected, towards the imperfect; it's our tightly held but largely unexamined beliefs. Do you know what a belief is?"

"I think you're about to tell me."

"A belief is an attitude we've had for years; it's an unexamined habit of thinking without thinking about it that we've developed over years and which governs our perceptions and actions. So, if I'm going to break my habits and make sure I don't replace them with others, I'm always examining my attitude and efforts, always learning to unlearn in order to maintain my spiritual focus in the face of resistance and challenge, always seeking to improve a wholesome partnership between life and work, between living and working, between me, the teacher, and me, the person. To do that, I've got to keep myself fresh and alert while avoiding the seduction of success and the arrogance of authority. I've got to learn to give everything and everyone my full attention. That is emotionally demanding and energy draining. Nevertheless, only then can I do what needs to be done. It's one thing for me to say I want to help each person help him- or herself become the person he or she is capable of becoming. It's quite another thing for me to develop the attitude and skills, as well as maintain both the energy and emotional level, necessary to make that happen."

"So, what does it take to be a teacher?"

"You want a step by step 1,2,3?"

"If you can."

"I'm not going to make it easy for you because it's not that easy. Really, I'm not sure I can or want to. I know it is not automatically the result of x number of classes, x gpa, and x degrees, or even x number of years of experience in the classroom. I'm not a five easy steps 'how to' guy. I'm not a walking teaching infomercial touting a sure-fire gadget that will make anyone's teaching perfect with only a mere five minute a day workout. I'm a "I want you to think about" guy. I'm more of a guy who offers a choice, a challenging choice, a constantly and daily work hard at it choice, by showing 'this is what I do and why I do it.' Now, this is going to drive the 'spreadsheeters,' jargonizers, labelers, categorizers, lovers of 'ists' and 'isms,' the scholarship of teaching people, the assessors, and those who take comfort in numbers up a wall. Some teachers 'have it.' You know 'it' when you see it, but you can't put a handle on it; you can't put it into words; you can't identify it or slap a tag on it. It's both concrete and ethereal, both physical and spiritual, both idealistic and practical as instinct, a 'touch,' a 'gift,' an intuition, a 'knack.' It defies calling it something. I'm not sure that 'it' has to have a name and that it's not a waste of time and misleading to conjure one up. It's so personal that it doesn't have a prescribed step by step plan. It may not work in another place with another person. And, I'm not sure that is bad as long as you can see it and experience it for yourself. It has something to do with passion, commitment, faith, awareness, belief, empathy, connection, and, yes, love."

"Why did you say you offer a challenging choice. Why can't you tell me what it takes to be a teacher?"

"Okay, I'll tell you what it takes. Teaching is a matter of paying intense attention. Let me go back to 'To Be A Teacher.' It ends with these words: 'If you want to be a teacher, as Carl Jung advised, you have to put aside your formal theories and intellectual constructs and axioms and statistics and charts when you reach out to touch that miracle called the individual human being."

"Pay attention to what?"

"More to 'whom' and your 'why' than to 'what' and 'how.' To the individual human being! To your purpose and meaning. Paying attention to the every-changing and transforming kaleidoscope of the individuals in the classroom, as well as of ourselves. We have to listen to the voices heard and unheard. They're so different from each other. You know, no two snow flakes are the same; no two sets of finger prints are the same; no two human faces, as Richard Avedon always said, are the same; so, too, no two people are the same. Yet, we so often strip people of their uniqueness and treat them as if they are the same. So, 'pay attention' means be keenly aware. Be an intense observer. Remember, that the small details are important. Everything a student feels and does is an integral part of and has an impact on his or her learning and teaching. Everything you do is an integral part of and has an impact on your learning and teaching."

"How do you do that? There has to be a formula to accomplish that. I mean we have classes to teach us all about that."

"You still want a string of sure-fire steps. Here are my ways by which I've found my way. They may not be sure-fire, but they sure fire me up each day. Each day! Don't forget that. It's in the everyday. Listen to the Tao le Ching: You 'accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.' The angels are, therefore, in the details. Love and live with the mystery of the unexpected and inexplicable, be flexible, let go of control, lie low, don't use force or threat, have a clear open mind and heart, let go of limiting labels, let go of preconceptions and expectations, be a resource not the source, be spontaneous, take risks, be prepared to make mistakes, learn from your mistakes, create a supporting and encouraging community, make the most of both your and each student's imagination and creativity, keep a clear and open mind, practice humility. If you can learn that, it can make a huge difference in how things work out. And, you will make a great difference."

"I don't get it. You haven't said a thing about using technology or testing or evaluations or anything like that."

"They're tools, nothing more. We focus on them too much. They're not miraculous cure-alls. Never were. That's not to say they're unimportant. But, you know, just because someone invented the fountain pen doesn't mean we're better writers. And, the computer doesn't mean we're better connected and communication is faster and clearer, or that standardized testing means we're more knowledgeable, or evaluations make us better at what we do. All teaching and learning is people teaching and people learning. Teaching is all about people. The 'people factor' is critically important. It's people who decide how to put the tools to use. I've seen people use the finest tools to do a lousy job, and even an unethical job. Let me put it another way. We use all sorts of tools to work with all sorts of materials to build a house, but those tools don't decide whether the work is shoddy or exceptional, and it's not the tools that makes the house a livable home. No, we have to be 'people smart,' not just 'technological smart.' Everything you feel, think, and do as a teacher, including whether and how you use those tools at your disposal, derives from the extent to which you respect, appreciate, and love yourself, what you do, and each student."

"I'm not sure I get it."

"Think about it for a while and we call me with some follow-up questions if you wish. I'd like to read a copy of the paper you hand in."

         Make it a good day.


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

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