Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Wed, 5 May 1994

No walking today. It was raining like cats and dogs. Nevertheless, I was thinking about Julissa and Mark today. I know what they think about the style of the class. That got me to wondering once again about what my old professors at Adelphi, St. John's and UNC, those who taught me 27 to 36 years ago, might have thought of my less than traditional teaching style. Standing there in their suits, sport coats, and ties, what questions would have raced through their minds as they saw me bounce into class in my less than professorial attire, a blaring boom box in one hand, no folder of lecture notes to be seen, sucking on a tootsie pop, bantering with the students on a first name basis. Would they have thought it "kindergartenish", like by colleague, to have the students create triad crests? Would they have thought it even more childish if they heard the students say to me, "Where's your symbol? You're part of this class. You've got to make one," if they saw me go into my office, get a piece of butcher paper, and get down on the floor with it to create a crest depicting the entire class (By the way, the name for the class that I came up with was the "Tootsie Pops." My motto was "Many flavors: all sweet")? I wonder if they would have judged it "rinky-dink" when they saw my up-raised arm as a "quiet signal"? Would they have thought it "hokey" as they looked on during the first days of the quarter watching each student and me stand up to sing solo a few bars of their choice of a song as an opening ice-breaker, or to take biographies of each other and introduce each other to the class. I wonder if they would have shaken their heads in bewilderment watching blindfolded students being led through an obstacle course of chairs by other students or diving off the desk in the arms of waiting students or falling back into the arms of waiting students in a series of trust-forming exercises. I wonder if they would have raised their eyebrows in astonishment if they saw that I didn't hand out the course syllabus until the fifth day of class or didn't hear any discussion of history until after an entire week had passed? What would their reactions have been to the grouping of the students into triads and watching them taking the quizzes in open discussion and working on assignments collaboratively and getting common grades? What would they have said and done as they watched triads of students jointly presenting to the class a painting, a piece of sculpture, an original song, a game, a poem as the "answer" to a final exam rather than a traditional essay or short-answer questions. I'm not sure they would they have understood the place and purpose of student journaling, of weekly student self-evaluations, and of open class evaluations of me and each other? I think they would have been skeptical of my declarations to the students that "we're all responsible for each other's success" and "it's your class." Most would have been uncomfortable with my practice of letting the students alter the course curriculum. I think some would have been, to say the least, certainly disappointed in the belief that I had gone astray. Some would have been outraged and branded me a traitor to my academic culture. Most would have turned and walked away from what surely would have seemed to them as "unprofessional" shenanigans or "high schoolish" antics. A few might have stayed to ask a ton of questions out of curiosity to see where I went wrong, but I don't think any would have given themselves a whirl at a style of teaching so unlike their own. I don't think they would have been prepared to explore beyond the traditional, to experience questioning of their professional values, and to experience possible personal uprooting. I think they would have been content to remain entrenched in their traditional formal lecturing ways.

As a defense, I think, most of them would have asserted that to teach all they needed to know was their subject and that there was not much to know about teaching techniques beyond being expert in the subject. Most probably would have proclaimed what good teachers they were by unrolling their professional resumes replete with lists of publications, presented conference papers, consultantships, awards, and grants. Most would have been content to lock the door to exciting new worlds by saying that the non- traditional styles of teaching: "Don't fit my personality," "Are not my cup of tea," "Are not me." Most would have branded anyone using common language rather than jargon as "popular," "non- professional," or "pop" this or that. I don't think most could have found common ground with anyone who didn't lecture. Most would have been unsure of my celebration of "learning and teaching" rather than or equal to any promotion of research and publication. A few would have thought me a pariah because I much prefer to call myself a teacher rather than a professor, to use my title, "Dr.", only when I can get a discount rather than to distinguish myself. Almost all would have rejected the idea that some of my teaching methods, used in the "lower" K-8 world of the "teacher," might have something to teach them about teaching in the "higher" collegiate world of the "professor." Most would have believed that I couldn't cut a proper authority figure or get proper respect without the proper attire of coat and tie. I think most would been extremely nervous about the "real world" of the lay person invading the higher and adored order of the academicians' ivory tower. Most would have been horrified at the prospect of an erosion of the distinction between the two. Most would have been offended by what they deemed a corruption of the traditional academic ethos. Their customs, rituals, ceremonies, outlook, titles, language, dress, and style, like any tribe, were important to these members of a proud and aged intellectual culture.

But, teaching, like everything else, is not so much about style as it is substance. Style in itself is merely physical appearance that you can walk into a class and see: a lecture, a seating arrangement, a method of testing, a discussion, a technique here, a technique there, a technological aide. Substance is process. It's the reasons, purpose and direction behind the goings on. It's the attitude and the spirit that permeates the air from which the style derives its drive and energy. It's not as obvious as the structural. You have to look hard for all that and feel it. It's those essential intangible things: caring, bonding, trusting, learning, changing, growing, transforming, and sincerity.

We should make sure, however, that any style must be more than stylish. It must be more than another way of talking, another way of moving, another way of moving things around, another way of assessment. It's an extension and reflection of a way of thinking and feeling about our craft, as well as a way of perceiving ourselves and the students. As I see it, techniques I am currently using are at best a skeleton that gives form to a personal value system and a deeper process of learning and growth that emanates from my soul and hopefully will resonate in the student.

After deep reflection of myself as a person and a professional, I have chosen a style of teaching that I hope creates more of an environment of learning for the student than an ease of presentation for me, that is more fitted to the diverse learning styles of the students than my teaching habits, that is more suited to the distinctive personalities of the students than my disposition, that is more concerned with the question "did the student learn anything" rather than the statement "I taught him or her." I recently read a profound statement from a teacher. "When teaching a five year old," he said, "get down on his level and see how it will look to him." It's no different with a college student.

Whatever style is used, there should be solid reasons for its adoption. We should ask questions about the processes of learning, about the various ways of instruction, about our teaching, and about ourselves. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Why do we use one approach over another? Why do we think one technique works with some students at some time and not with others at another? Why do we think one strategy will suit us and not another? What's the goal and purpose of it all? Whose class is it or whose should it be? And, above all, who are the students the strategy is to help?

We should ask these questions with honesty, sincerity, authenticity, and deep reflection. We should not be superficial, going through the motions with the fullest intention of operating in a business-as-usual manner, merely asking these questions because some pronouncing administrator or interfering legislator told us that they must be asked or because we don't want some "amateur" invading our campus, trespassing on our turf, and intruding into the classroom to ask for us. We should not select a style because we think it will profit us in terms of higher student evaluations or earlier bestowal of tenure or greater salary increases. We should not select a style because it protects us from the accusation of being out of step with the times, sedentary, or old fashioned. We should not select a style because we just want to look good. We should not chose a style just because someone told us we should. We should not select a style thinking it in and of itself is teaching. If we do, as my metaphor exercise indicates, the students will spot the counterfeit, and pin us for uncaring, educational obstructionists.

When we reexamine an old and tried style or explore a new and untested one, we must explore our own feelings and values. We must examine our own need to grow. We must challenge ourselves to grow and move on to another place. When we open new vistas for the students, we must open whole new dimensions for ourselves. We have to convince ourselves that we want to get deeper into the process of learning; we have to find the courage to face the exciting and frightening journey of exploration into our minds, souls and practices; we have to muster the energy demanded by the task. Otherwise, we'll forget how to move on. Instead, we'll succumb to the comfort and familiarity of routine, tediousness, and desensitivity. And, in so doing, we'll threaten ourselves with losing our edge, with sinking into the morass of stagnation, letting our notes yellow, letting ourselves become dull and boring, and, like the pre-historic creatures of old in the tar-pits, becoming fossils.

We should select a style, then, which is challenging for both us and the students, in which we believe and trust, with which we become one, which becomes us, which serves the students and which merges with them. We should select a style because we truly want students to be the best learners they can be, be the best human beings they can be, rather than because we are the faddists of today or the entrenched, self-serving defenders of yesterday. We should select a style because we care about making the classroom for the student an unending adventure in learning, a discovery of self, a cradle of creation. And, we should select a style because we want the classroom to be for ourselves an adventure in learning, a discovery of self, a cradle of creation.

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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