Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Tues, 16 Aug 1994
I went walking a bit later than usual this morning because it was drizzling when I got out of bed. When I left the house, the air was relatively cool and bug-free. It seemed that this particular Dog Day was whimpering. The sun was on the horizon and the partly cloudy sky was awash with the colors of dawn.
As I enjoyed what we call a very rare "soft" August morning, I was thinking about Barbara's last question, "Why do you teach the way you do?" I turned a corner near the school yard, stopped, and gazed admiringly down the street at a distant, single cloud painted in blues, reds, and oranges. Golden rays fanned out from its top edges like visual trumpets heralding the coming of a new day as they raced through a dazzlingly rainbowed corona. It was a magnificent sight that gave me the answer to Barbar's question.
"Every student should have a chance to shine like this," I thought as I remembered my Emerson. "Every student should have a person who wants to help him or her become the person he or she is capable of becoming, and I'll be damned if I am ever going to let one human being fall through the cracks in my classes without a fight." Over the last three years, this has emerged as my first principle of my teaching.
As I began to change the image of myself, I began to change my image of my profession. I began to expand my parochial view of what it meant to be a teacher and put aside my demeaning evaluation of it. I saw more than ever that the classroom is not a dead end; it's the exit from a dark cave. I slowly began to see teaching as a calling rather than just a job. The students became my profession. I became far more interested in the well-being of the student than chasing the golden fleece of "subject mastery."
As a teacher, I started to see that my purpose was to create an environment in which the students address themselves honestly, and to help students develop the attitudes that will allow them to get to know themselves and start becoming who they truly are and are capable of becoming. I wanted to bring something wonderfully magic and mysterious into an otherwise gruelling and torturous experience. I became interested in endowing students with a lifelong love of learning, opening their mind with the power of reasoning, opening their hearts with the power of humility, creating a self-reliance, helping them learn how to learn, giving them a glimpse at the awe and wonder of learning, and giving them a glimpse at the awe and wonder of their potential.
As I changed my life, I began to see once again but far more clearly that teaching is much more and far more difficult than just showing up for a classroom presentation. Expectations are how we imagine ourselves and others. They are themselves predictions. As I began to realize my own value, I began to appreciate the value of the students. As I learned to appreciate my own untapped potential, I learned to appreciate theirs. As I started to hold myself sacred, I began to see the often desecrated and self- denigrated students as humans beings who also were sacred, who had something worthy and beautiful about them. Like myself, I started to see them not only as they were, but began appreciating them for what they were yet to be and were capable of becoming.
Lately there have been times when I've walked into class feeling as if I were coming out of a dark age into an age of human dignity. I've come into the room, hesitated, scanned the room, looked at each student with a respect far deeper than I ever had before, and wanted to proclaim, like Miranda in the "The Tempest": "O, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, that has such people in 't!"
I have decided that real learning involves a change of attitude and behavior no less than does real teaching. I have come to believe that teaching is more of a calling forth of wholeness to be a better person than just a jamming in of information that it must deal with the entire person, not just the mind. Teaching should make students and teachers aware of their sacredness, give them high expectations of themselves, and change their lives.
That brings me to my second principle of teaching. I believe that there are emotional and spiritual components to education, as there are to everything, which are inseparable from its intellectual aspects. I am a member of a profession, however, that so often wants to treat both students and professors as if they are emotionally sterilized, that feels far more comfortable dealing with only the intellect rather than the "touchy-feely stuff" of the whole person. But there is a fascinating marriage between emotion and intellect between what people think, feel, know, say, and do. A metaphor exercise that I use at the beginning of my classes--which you will read about in two Random Thoughts-- gives me greater understanding of and sensitivity to how so many students find it so difficult to perform when they are treated as half-adults and half-children, when they have been denied the opportunity to become emotionally and intellectually independent; when they have seldom been trusted to seize the chance to educate themselves; when they have been told, in so many words, that they aren't worth the effort; when they see and hear so much that only reinforces their feelings of insecurity, self-doubt and diminished self-worth.
It seems to me, then, that the need to value effort as well as ability and to develop attitude as well as talent is obvious. I think it is important to know historical facts, be able to deal with chemical formulae, operate a computer, and understand Shakespeare. I think it is important to have critical thinking, problem perceiving, problem solving, communication, and social skills. I think it is essential to apply those skills and utilize formulae, axioms, and facts in a subject area. The emotional aspects, however, of deep hurt, self-denigration, and emptiness hinder sincere and honest effort and ultimately impact on performance just as self-confidence, self-worth, pride, integrity, pursuit of excellence, and humility bring out the willingness to work hard, and accept challenge and develop the student's innate ability.
When students are not performing, I understand how the messages from past experiences are loud and interfering static, drowning out the voice trying to be heard. So I ask myself very quickly what's going on with their attitudes. I want to know what they bring to the table. I want to know what kind of persons they are and what messages they are hearing, so that I can help them dial into themselves. That is why the introductory "stuff," weekly student self-evaluations, daily journaling, and just the plain small talk that I discuss in my class syllabus are integral parts of my classes.
I believe, that it is equally important for students to acquire the character necessary to utilize their intellectual skills: to have the courage to apply those skills, to be honest with themselves and others when they are facing challenges and the going gets tough, to be sufficiently humble to help fellow students along the way and to ask for help, to be confident enough to risk failure, to have sufficient pride to give it their best shot, to be modest enough to know that their best can always be better, to have the daring to venture into new worlds, to find the sense of independence to do what they think should be done, and to have the integrity to achieve the honest way.
But each student stands at a different point in both the emotional and intellectual growth continuum. Each student brings into the classroom different amounts of knowledge, information, and skill, and different degrees of what I call "Learning Dependency." Furthermore, each student has a particular learning style. I struggle to find ways to treat each student in each class in each quarter as a unique individual with unique attributes and potentials, who can't be judged by a single standardized, subjective set of criteria.
Slowly I've that my purpose is not to weed out, unintentionally or otherwise, students who cannot learn by the one method that I once rationalized was comfortable for me or to inadvertently punish those who have higher barriers to overcome. My purpose is to nurture. In an effort to reach all students, I have to use a diversity of teaching methods that will accommodate their diverse needs and at the same time challenge the students to stretch themselves. The trick is to teach in a variety of ways that fit the different learning styles of different students and allow the students multiple forms of expression. And since I must give a grade, I allow myself a tremendous amount of flexibility, so that I can recognize and acknowledge where each student has been and how far each has struggled to come, and consider not just what they have done but what it took for them to do it.
My third principle is that teaching and learning are acts of human relationships that must eliminate the cold, distancing, destructive, adversarial "we vs. them" mentality that so often pervades the campus. I do not believe that there is anything more powerful in the classroom than a bond of trust, an honest interaction among everyone in that classroom.
The trust issue is very important. Students are stressed because the classroom so often lacks a support system, leaving them with a feeling of isolation. I see students worry themselves sick over the simple acts of studying and coming to class. I hear them express it all the time in a variety of ways: "What do you want?" "What grade will I get?" "Will this be good enough for you?" "What will they think of me?" "Will this be on the test?" "Is this important?" "Do I have to know this?" The more uncomfortable or scared students are in class, the less effective my teaching and their learning will be. An e-mail colleague of mine once said in a play on words, "Students should feel sacred, not scared."
There's a comfort zone and a trust level created, however, when someone cares enough to be willing to listen, when there is a mutually supportive relationship, and when students find that they are not alone. I have a concocted a home remedy for alleviating the stress pangs brought on by panic, helplessness, fear, denigration, and isolation: four pinches of smiles, two dashes of laughter, a cup of trust, four ounces of empowerment, three heaping tablespoons of caring, two teaspoons of respect, a clove of dignity, a leaf of encouragement, and a stalk of love.
The bond is partly forged by sharing myself and the truth of my life. It is a pronouncement that I am not different from the students or above them or better than them.
I remember during a discussion last spring how a student commented with frustration and disgust to a statement I had made: "Damn, Dr. Schmier, we'll never be able to do what you can."
It struck me that I had yet to cut completely through the opaque curtain separating us. That afternoon, I rushed home, scrambled up to attic, opened an old suitcase, grabbed a faded piece of paper, brought it into class the next day, and threw it up on an overhead projector.
Hiding the name at the top of the paper, I told the class, "We're not going to talk about the chapter right off. I have a problem, and I need your guidance. I've been asked to write a recommendation for this student. He's a great guy, but his grades...well.....What would you do?" They looked at the display of the D's, F's, and C's generously sprinkled through the occasional Bs and As.
Among their comments: "Pretty mediocre," "messed around," "just average," "screwed up big-time," "looks like my transcript," "inconsistent," "doesn't look like he's going far." They finally agreed that I should write an honest letter, but not make it too glowing, and if "you know about him like you do us," talk more about the student's potential than what the transcript shows. Finally, I uncovered the name on the transcript. It was mine. Their mouths were agape.
At that moment we had bridged the gap. By that action, and others, I announced that although I stand at a different place on life's road, I was once where they were, and like them I have warts and that I have been shaped by the same wounds that have shaped them, and that, nevertheless, there is an essence and a uniqueness, a beauty, and a potential in each of us.
All this helps remind us that both I and the students are human beings with the same joys and sorrows, dreams and nightmares, strengths and weaknesses, and complexities, and that we can find supportive and mutually responsible community as struggling frail human beings.
The bond is also partly forged by actively connecting and engaging the students, myself, and the knowledge of my discipline in a way that allows us to be fellow travelers who teach and learn from each other. I think active learning is far more effective than passive note-taking and memorization. I think active teaching is far more effective than passive presentation. I have found that, if given the chance, most students will be passionate and committed to their own learning if they can see that the subject is within them, useful to them, and applicable to their lives. The more a student is involved in the experience, the less that student will be an unthinking, "going through the motions," robotic copier, memorizer, test-passer, and grade-getter. The more the student shares in control of the classroom and actively helps structure it, the greater the opportunity the student has to be focused and aware, to engage in the subject in a personally meaningful way that makes sense of the experience and facilitates insight and discovery.
In this respect, the most potentially effective teaching technique that I have at my disposal is me, the teacher and human being. I find that as I think of myself as my most potentially effective teaching technique, I teach better. The more I know about my students, the more I know about myself, the more wisely I will teach. The essence of my teaching is to recognize myself and to understand myself in my teaching. My power to teach, then, flows not just from my mastery of the subject, or from my use of technology, or from the power I have over the students, but from my own self-mastery.
Certainly, my responsibility is to ensure that I make available the knowledge of my discipline. But above that, it is my responsibility to care about the students, to treat them with dignity and respect, and affirm their spirit. It's a kind of love.
I have to bare my soul, to be open and honest. I have to be a learner, trying new ideas, reflecting on my experiences, willing to grow and develop throughout my life. I have to be creative, willing to risk the introduction of new and untested concepts and techniques. I have to believe that anything worth doing is worth risk and failure, and that the will to succeed requires the courage to fail. I have to find ways to take an error and turn it into a "magnificent opportunity." I have to have faith and trust in the students and grant them both freedom and responsibility while holding them to high expectations. I have to have a vision that never lets me "get by." I have to be driven by excellence and always stretch myself. I have to throw myself into the classes.
I think that when I teach with joy, students find it easier to learn. Yet I have to practice what I call "tough love." I think there are critical responsibilities the students have--to themselves and to their fellow-students, maybe even to me. If we are all to be sensitive to each other's individual differences, if we are all dedicated to enhancing those traits that are unique and positive in each other and challenging each other to stretch beyond our inclinations, if we are to serve as agents of personal and intellectual growth, and if we each are to be responsible for each other's learning, then every student has to be responsible for his or her own learning as well.
Students have to realize that learning is not fun and games, that from nothing comes nothing, that, as I say in my syllabus, "You won't learn how to climb mountains by practicing on MOLE hills." They have to accept that mastering a skill, or a body of knowledge, or themselves, is time-consuming, hard work. They each have to be aware that discarding old habits and unlearning what they think they know is sometimes tougher than learning new skills, styles, and subject matter. They have to actively give it their best, challenge themselves, understand that if they want to learn, they can learn, and that they should be prepared to do whatever it takes to learn. This is the essence of their growth; it assists the growth of their fellow students and it contributes to my own personal and professional growth.
I see teaching as an art form. It now touches me in a way that is exhilarating and fulfilling. If I can relate to each student in a sort of artistic way--a way that considers who they are and what they are about--I'm sure I'll be a better teacher--for both them and myself. It's that mixture of the technical expertise, the art of teaching, and my passion that gives me the best chance of helping the student be educated.
I've found, however, that it is not enough to experience this spiritual renewal. Teaching, like Thomas Edison said of invention, is "1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Nothing is so useless as principles that go unapplied.
The real importance of what I have learned about myself, then, is to convert that experience into something practical, to take what I learned--and am still learning--and put it into everyday language and action. If I have looked at the yesterdays of my life to understand me, it is to live and work today and for the tomorrows. I have begun to understand that self-evaluation or inward reflection serves no purpose unless I, like the shaman of old, can convert it into an outward sharing, a reaching out, and a giving back.
I want my teaching to speak to the students, to foster a conversation between me and them, among all of us, and between them and themselves. I want to go beyond the mechanics of the classroom--beyond merely having a body of information, organizing a class, writing lectures, being prepared, making up quizzes and exams, grading performance, being prompt, and so on. If all I do is transfer my information to the students' notes and then they transfer it back to the quiz or exam without any interplay in the mind, heart and spirit--if I do not add to the stature of either myself or the student as thinking, feeling, contemplating people--I have not done very much. No, as a teacher, I have to somehow understand the spirit of each student and touch that spirit. History is my tool for doing that.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier (912-333-5947) firstname.lastname@example.org Department of History /~\ /\ /\ Valdosta State University /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ Valdosta, Georgia 31698 / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____