Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Mon, 19 Sept 1994

A lot of people would describe this morning as the beginning of a warm, ugly and dreary yukker of a day. Though I sing like a frog, I am somewhat like Gene Kelly. I love to walk in the rain, especially this quiet, almost lazy, rain whose drops of water seem to want to forever float in the air and are forever reluctant to fall and end their journey. It's a rain that is somewhere between a indecisive quiet drizzle and a determined noisy downpour. This kind of rain has a subtle rejuvenating quality. It brings a sense of freshness and cleanliness in the air as it softly washes away yesterday's dust and grim. It has a muted music of the rain drops faintly hitting surfaces that makes a person want to think afresh.

To tell you the truth I have been thinking afresh for nearly the last two weeks as we of the Jewish faith have worshipped during what we call the Days of Awe, the eight days that begin with the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah, and end with the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Not being religious in the sense of being a ritualist or ceremonialist, I always find myself approaching these holidays somewhat like an unprepared passive participant coming to read the words and enjoy the music, and surprisingly emerging in a deeply involved reflective mood. Without getting theological, this time is a period of spiritual and moral self-reflection, self-examination, recognition, acknowledgement, resolution, and hopefully subsequent action.

As I walked this morning I slowly found myself making a connection between this time of reviewing my spiritual and moral portfolio in synagogue with the reviewing and revision of my teaching portfolio in my office. I think that was partly because the beginning of the quarter next week is on my mind. I am anxious, expectant, and excited about that first day of class when I and the students meet each other for the first time and size each other up. My heart pounds and the juices start to flow quicker at this time as it does every time I go into class. Without that tension that creates an alertness and sensitivity to those around me, my teaching would be controlled, predictable--and flat. In anticipation of dealing with new challenges, I have been psyching myself up, reviewing my experiences of the past year, re-reading student journals, going over my teaching portfolio and updating it.

I think this connection between my worship and teaching was also triggered by something that was said at the introductory faculty meeting of the College of Arts & Sciences last week. One of the passing items on the agenda was a slight push to urge faculty to create voluntarily their own teaching portfolios. The limited emphasis was the purpose that a portfolio would serve to strengthen the applications for promotion and/or tenure. As the Assistant to the Vice-President of Academic Affairs was talking, I started to think of a nursery rhyme. The inference was that the teaching portfolio was a way for faculty to become academic Little Jack Horners. As a counterpart to the scholarly resume, the portfolio would be a Christmas pie into which a professor could put in his or her thumb, pull out a plum and can proclaim to the department and college Promotion and Tenure Committees "what a good teacher am I."

Now don't get me wrong. I don't think there is anything wrong with that. In fact, maybe the end justifies the means because I think this approach might be only way to get young, reluctant, research-oriented faculty involved in the process of self- evaluation and self-examination about teaching. But, once the limited, pragmatic, self- centered, and protective plateau of a promotion or tenure had been reached, then what? Is the portfolio to be put on the self to be forgotten only to be dusted off for the next time a promotion or tenure review occurs? In the interim what happens? Is it business as usual? Are the lecture notes allowed to yellow? Do the cobwebs begin to gather? Does just punching the "time clock" start? What happens to purpose, meaning, goal? Is there reflective life after promotion or especially after tenure?

"Why," I remembered thinking to myself, "if this is the purpose of a portfolio, would I, with tenure and at the top of the promotion ladder want to waste my time to create something to achieve what I already have?" Yet, I have a portfolio. I have been gathering examples of material for the last three years that reflect what I believe about teaching and how I teach. It was only last year that I had created a somewhat formal "teaching portfolio." I am constantly examining it and updating it and fiddling with it each quarter.

I don't think there is any one form of a portfolio that is better than another. It is a very personal statement dictated by individual personality, teaching philosophy, style, and technique. Mine is rather large and extensive. In it I have enclosed many items. In its opening pages are unsolicited personal letters written to me by students. I do this because I think it is far more important to see what students think and have learned rather than what I think and how I have taught. Then follows: a statement of my educational philosophy; a statement of my teaching principles; a copy of a sample syllabus; copies of "stuff" exercises, those essential bonding and trust things we do in class in the attempt to form a learning community; a sample student journal that a student has given me permission to use; slides of samples of bonding shield projects; video tapes of the class in operation, formed in triads, taking quizzes, engaged in discussion; slides, audio cassettes, and tapes of final example projects; and, of course, a disc containing the entire collection of Random Thoughts. In the last pages, in the back of the portfolio as sort of an afterthought, is my professional resume and a sample of a publication or two. I place my resume last because I don't think research has much relationship to teaching.

I have a portfolio because I think creating, maintaining, and constantly revising one has a higher purpose. For me, the portfolio is a type of self-imposed evaluation process in which I struggle to consider honestly what I want my professional life to be, what I think my attitudes towards myself and the students ought to be. I think it takes courage to trust this evaluation process in which a teacher discusses his or her character, ability, and activities. When I started gathering material for the portfolio, I found myself beginning protectively, rationalizing any shortcomings or overestimating any strengths; I dreaded being completely honest with myself for fear of finding flaws. It required an enormous amount of time spent in introspection as I took a close inward look at myself and what I did. This isn't instant Lent! It is a very intense and ongoing, but extraordinarily worthwhile experience. It's an experience that constantly gives me food for thought, material on which I can reflect, and it serves as a catalyst for personal and professional growth. I think maybe this may be the essential meanings of the portfolio: to lay the groundwork for the time ahead and future goals by looking behind and pointing out past deficiencies and inadequacies as well as successes and strengths; to reflect on what you've learned; and, then, to point to new experiences and challenges. After all, significant growth follows this cycle of reflection and action.

I have heard smirking and grumbling here on my campus and at conferences over teaching portfolios. Professors have complained about having to "tout myself," of being forced to "lay yourself bare," of being reluctant to "promote myself" and "proclaim myself." "It's like being my own professional agent," I overheard a professor say somewhat disparagingly as she emerged from a conference session on portfolios. Yet, isn't that what we do, promote ourselves, and isn't that what we are, our own agent, when we prepare our own scholarly resume, when we present conference papers touting the results of our research efforts, when we apply for grants, when we seek promotion or tenure, or when we search for a position? I have been in many conference sessions where many a professor in the audience unhesitatingly engaged in discussion for the sole purpose of promoting him or herself. I have read many a review that likewise was seized by the reviewer to proclaim him or herself at the expense of the author whose book was being reviewed.

In one significant respect a teaching portfolio is not an oddity. Like my scholarly resume, it is an acceptably and individually self-centered introspective celebration of myself, not of the students, of the classroom, of the campus, or of academia in general. It is a time when I turned into myself.

At the same time, a teaching portfolio is an oddity for professors. In a portfolio professors are asked to reflect on, articulate about, and describe something which they do a lot of, have thought relatively little about, and have seldom identified themselves with. In a scholarly resume, I merely list past accomplishments and rest on those laurels. It's a snapshot in which are frozen past activities. In a teaching portfolio I do more than list. I describe, explain, evaluate, and offer a vision. The portfolio is more of a motion picture. It has the difficult objective and profound purpose of bringing out the potential ability in each of us rather than merely relating past accomplishments. It is the result of the processes of self-reflection, self-examination, identification, admission, resolution, and application. In one way or another, it addresses some fundamental questions: Who am I? What are the purposes and meaning and goal of what I do? Where do I want to be? Who do I want to be? Am I getting there? Why am I doing what I am doing? How can I do better? It is a swatch that is taken from the fabric of my classes. It shows the patterns that I have striven to weave between my spirit, my emotion, my intellect and my subject; between me, the students and the subject; between the students' emotion, intellect, spirit and the subject.

Preparing a portfolio, then, like preparing a resume, is an activity in which it's acceptable to be egocentric, but, unlike a scholarly resume, only if we sincerely approach the portfolio with an air of constructive self-criticism. It forces each of us to go from a non-descript "oh, you know what I mean," statement about what goes on in our classes to a specific articulated statement "this is what I mean." It enters the inner sanctum of the classroom and demonstrates "this is how I have done it" and ends up with a critical, "but, it could have been better and this is how I strive to do better."

The higher goal, however, is not to create a portfolio for someone to examine once a year or once every few years. The real purpose is to examine yourself constantly, to emerge from the process of creating or redoing the portfolio as a better, more aware person and teacher than when you started out. It's a form of journaling. It's not an easy process. It is one of things that is far easier said than done, but it is a powerful one. I think writing and gathering material to exemplify what you have written is different from thinking. When I write more comes out on paper. Writing somehow forces me to be far more introspective as well as to consider my actions and inactions in greater detail. It sure makes me more honest with myself. In some ways, the creation of a teaching portfolio was a victory over fear. I think the troubles we encounter in the confrontation of and conquest of ourselves pales next to anything this process might be compared to. Writing is like asking for reactions and feedback from myself, not to mention from others. It helps me to focus on the truth of my observations and takes me to task on how I may be evading the truth, be rationalizing, or making excuses. I find that as I ponder what I had to put together or alter my portfolio, I ask myself why am I including this or taking this out or changing this or rethinking that. For me, it was at first a separation process of principles and conviction from ego. Now, it is a constant, self-imposed rethinking of those convictions and their application.

Tough as it may be, creating a portfolio is a highly optimistic activity. It certainly is a constructive one. It says that deep down we believe that we can succeed to improve and that we can take the tribulations of self-examination and do something constructive with them. It reflects an attitude that struggles to cast aside the thinking that says, "of what concern is all this to me?" It promotes the idea that the entire class, campus and academia is dependent upon each of us, that we are struggling to do our share to make some improvements in the lives of ourselves and thereby in the lives of those with whom we come into contact, that we are seeking to supply something that is missing, and that we want to leave the world a little better for our stay in it.

A teaching portfolio reminds me that for all the goodness and success I have experienced during the past year, there is still a heck of a lot of room for improvement. I have not yet attained that elevated position as the perfect teacher that I seek because I do not have the qualities of perfection, and that I should not allow me to delude myself into that stagnating type of thinking that there is no room for change and growth.

The introspection that comes with preparing a portfolio or revising it are part of our quest for improvement. It tells us what we are doing in thought and action. In this sense, the mere act of preparing a portfolio is an act of trying to improve; relying on past accomplishments and reputation is not. Doing nothing, sitting on past laurels, is, then, the opposite of striving to be the best teacher you can be. That puts the burden of true reflection on us. We must take the initiative and act on it. We have his responsibility as teachers: of looking within, analyzing what we see, resolving to do better, figuring out how to do it, and then doing it. All these things are within the range of what we can and must do. True and honest reflection leads to movement. It makes a change from what was to what might be. A sincerely created portfolio is a form of becoming, creating a newer person out of the older one, rearranging the components and producing a newer and improved version, a teacher capable of saying and meaning: "I want to be the best I can be."

Make it a good day.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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