Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Tue, 28 Jun 1994
When I wrote that little piece about what it takes to be a teacher, I wasn't talking about past childhood experiences. I am talking about a contemporary and continuous joyous, adventurous, caring, and humble outlook on life that lightens up everything a person does, that floods the classroom with infectious caring, discovery, adventure, excitement, enthusiasm, electricity, awe, and wonder. Of course, I have to know about my subject, but resumes of publications and degrees acquired and books read and papers presented in themselves don't have much to do with teaching except in the most euphemistic of ways. I have always maintained that teaching or whatever I do is a reflection of and an extension of me, "a baring of one's soul," as Bill Hunter at the University of Calgary so aptly phrases it. It's the spirit within myself, my attitudes and character if you will, which ultimately determines the spirit that I bring into and flood the classroom, the goals and purposes of what I do, what I do with what I know, how I relate to the students, and how I communicate with them.
We all have an outlook on life that impacts on everything, that we do, think, feel, dream, including my teaching. That includes how we relate to ourselves and the people with whom we personally, socially and professionally associate. I do not believe that a person who sees little joy in life can be joyous in the classroom, that a person who is bored with him/herself can be exciting and electrifying in the classroom, that a person who has a lack of self-confidence can relinquish control in the classroom, that a person who is self-centered, self-righteous, and/or arrogant can respect students, that a person who lacks a sense of adventure can cut new paths or chart new waters in the classroom. But, a person who listens to the train in the distance, can hear the individual student, the person who cries at a sad movie can be compassionate of the worrisome burdens carried by students, the person who gives milk to a scrawny, stray cat sees potential in each and every student, the person who can watch a snail crawl can have patience with the struggles of a student, the person who looks at the dew on a spider's web can see the individual student in the class.
We just has a torrential rainstorm. It was fun watching the ballet of raindrops dancing towards the house along the telephone line and then dripping rhythmically onto the bushes below. So often we get all those youthful visions beaten out, educated out, spanked out, talked out, drummed out and walked out. I remember once as a high school student we had to take one of those silly insidious predicting "what you should become" tests which we took in the fifties. When mine came back, one of my teachers had told me that I had answered some of the questions wrong. The one that stands out in my mind was the one that asked if given a choice would I prefer to do voluntary work at a hospital, go to a museum, see a baseball game, or go to an opera. At fifteen, I wouldn't want to be caught dead languishing in a musty museum, or be lulled to sleep listening for an hour to the main character's extended death gasps, or smell the foreboding antiseptic odors of a hospital. My honest answer was to see a baseball game. That teacher talked to me about not having the right attitude, how I should have wanted to do volunteer work if I wanted to become a doctor. I remember vividly her saying something to the effect that I will become nothing if I waste my time watching baseball rather than getting some culture or helping others.
It seems that from a tender age, through graduate school, and on into academia, people are always trying to put us on the straight and narrow. They're telling us to be responsible, grow up, act our age, be prim and proper, know what we want to do, shape up, get serious, play the game, be political, be professional.
I was just at a teaching conference. While everyone was interested in teaching, there was a strong distracting underlying current of anxiety about budget cuts, tenure, promotion, salary, publications, imposing administrations, antagonistic colleagues, etc. etc. One junior professor came up to me to ask some advice from "an old timer like you" (I did not take that as a kind description) about how to maintain an emphasis on teaching in an institution that talks teaching but walks grants and research and publication. What could I tell him. The truth is that institutions of higher education are more about power than the noble pursuit of learning. Most of it's members are more interested in the personal or institutional prestige, renown, money, and power that come with research grants and publications than in being silent dream promoters. So many of us are very good at denial. One of our greatest sin is to remain passive and defensive in the face of that truth. Authoritarianism against students or faculty destroys dreams; disinterest destroys dreams; arrogance destroys dreams. So, what was my advice. I first told him that I had learned to pick my battles and know my "adversaries." Isn't it tragic to describe colleagues and administrators in such confrontational and combative terms. I also told him that I constantly ask myself a series of simple, yet difficult and profound questions that often require courageous answers: How much faith do I have in my institution and profession? How much can I remain or strive to be my true self? How much do I have to sell out to remain academically and professionally alive? Do I have a right to be whole?
I hate the idea that you have to surrender yourself and become, as a colleague described herself, "an idealist who crashed" in order to survive the power politics of academia. But, you know I sometimes believe that all the people who try to "straighten" others out or who try to keep others acting and looking so "professional" are the Jacob Marleys and Ebeneezer Scrooges of academia. They have lost their youth and abandoned their dreams. Their lecture notes have yellowed. Their classes have become stale. They're bored with their classes, have little respect for their students and are taken with themselves. They look at those who still retain their youthful charm and vim as foolish Bob Cratchetts and scream, "Bah, Humbug!" But, I think they feel jealous, saddened or threatened because they see what they never were or once were and long to be, but cannot or will not or are afraid to be. In the face of what life had thrown in their professional way--promotion, salary, tenure, research, publication, they had lost their way, compromised themselves, and lost their spirit.
I refuse to believe that you have to lose your sense of youth, that ability to dream, to believe in magic, in ghosts, in Santa Claus, to ride a carousel, stop and watch a rainbow, as you age in years, acquire degrees, enter a profession and acquire a reputation. Life is too short to take ourselves and what we do so seriously that we should allow our spirits to become as brittle as aged bones, allow our values to atrophy like unused muscles, and allow our energy to be so sapped that we become old fossils. That so many of us do so is one of the greatest crimes of academia. I believe we have to retain or rediscover the innocence, daring, and vigor of youth. I don't believe that the belief and enjoyment in clicking your heels twice or wishing upon a star or believing you can fly, or a bit of innocent mischievousness should be abandoned. They're not a sign of ignorance, immaturity or amateurism. They are what makes me real, lets me find the fun in what I do, allows me to take risks, makes those far-fetched ideas come true, allows me to laugh at my own mistakes, makes me sensitive to the needs of students, challenges me to move on, and encourages me to do what I want to do.
You know, I'm 53, have acquired a long scholarly resume, and am approaching retirement here at the University. But, I still can't believe that I am old enough to have a son of 25. I have a bottle of bubbles in my office. I suck on tootsie pops, wear bermuda shorts to class in the summer, just had a "finger paint date" with my wife, and I always talk with my flowers. I often wonder what is it that allows me to make contact with my students. I don't think it's simply the fact that I know my subject. I think it is my sense of humanity, but I think it's also that I still hold frogs up to my nose and look at them cross-eyed, refuse to stop believing in Peter Pan, refuse to "act my age," refuse to be "professorial", enjoy what I do, and have toys in my office.
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" -\____