Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Wednesday, 29 May 1996
Squadrons of ravenous vampires, disguised as mosquitoes, ambushed me all along my route. Let me tell you something about South Georgia mosquitoes: they're large enough to carry off children, and one bite from any one of them is like giving a pint of blood to the Red Cross. Then there were the annoying gnats, billowing in such huge swarms that if I wasn't careful, I'd have a mouthful of high protein -- nutritious, but not very appetizing. With the temperature in the 70s and the humidity in the 90s, a steady drip of stinging water fell from my eyebrows and into my eyes like a water torture, and torrents of water washed down my body, soaked my grubbies, and collected in my shoes, so that each step almost had the sound of a slosh. When I got back into the house and hit the cooled air, the steam rose from my glistening body like swamp gas, quickly leaving me wrapped in a sticky, salty film that made me feel like Lot's wife.
But now, I am sitting in front of the computer, still in my waterlogged grubbies, feeling renewed as always by my walk in spite of the outside sauna conditions. A cup of rejuvenating, freshly brewed, aromatic coffee that is sitting next to me has wondrous curative powers. My angelic wife is still asleep. The dog is resting. The python is motionless. The house is silent. It's a good time for quiet, relaxing, undisturbed, intimate conversation.
What shall I talk about to introduce you to this second volume of *Random Thoughts* without repeating what I wrote in the introductory Random Thoughts for the first volume? Should I talk about something personal? Something educational? Something philosophical? Something pedagogical? Something scholarly? Something "out there"? Someone or something else? No. I think I'll first say some things about myself, without any pretense of modesty.
I always remember that bit of timeless wisdom by Walt Kelly in Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." During the past five years, this has become -- not without me asking some very uncomfortable questions about myself and accepting nothing less than some very painful, honest answers -- the cornerstone of my entire outlook. I always say in my workshops on teaching, "It starts with myself." It wasn't too long ago -- five years ago, to be exact -- that I used to love to point fingers at others, to lay blame at outside circumstances for the problems of my individual and/or professional situations: "society demands that I ... ," "the students aren't as good as ... ," "the administration won't let ... ," "my colleagues will think that ... ," "I have to publish if I want ... ." And always, it was "the system made me do ... ." But really, if I'm brutally honest with myself, there is no one or no thing "out there" to blame for my circumstances, feelings, and beliefs. I created -- and continue to create -- my own definitions, my own limitations, my own realities, and my own future.
I have found out that I cannot separate the educator from the person. Everything I do starts from who I am inside -- from what I believe, what I perceive, and what I think. How I act, how I react, and what I do is an extension "out there" of myself "in here." I have slowly discovered that the solutions for whatever problems I, as an educator, might have, and the cures for whatever professional ills I might suffer, lie, ultimately, in my relationship with my "enemy": me.
So let me introduce myself with a brief biographical sketch. My name is Louis Schmier. My first name rhymes with phooey (unless I'm in trouble with the wife -- then you'd hear a hard "s"), the second with beer. I am a 55-year-old -- in body but not in mind or spirit -- born and bred New Yorker who moved south in 1963 to get a Ph.D. and who shortly thereafter became a devoted University of North Carolina Tarheel. Because of my total right hemisphericity, according to my psychologist friends, I revel in organized chaos. With uncanny accuracy, my Myers-Briggs agrees. It reveals that I am an ENFP: I prefer to focus on the inner world of ideas and impressions, I tend to focus on the future with a view toward patterns, I tend to base my decisions on values and on person-centered concerns, and I like a flexible and spontaneous approach to life.
I race-walk five miles every other pre-dawn morning at 11- minute clicks (that's admittedly bragging). That's when I do all of my reflecting, which results in the emergence of most of the Random Thoughts. In the evenings, I love to cook with my wok and create my own recipes. You might say, then, that I am always walking or woking "on the high side" each day, preparing food either for thought or for the tummy.
I constantly roam in my garden, talking with my flowers. Loving to work and create with my hands as well as with my heart and mind, I built a three-room master complex addition to the house. I am a "fixer-upper" who does not allow any repairman to step across the threshold, and to the horror of my neat wife, I keep the house in a constant state of remodeling and disarray.
I have been in the history department here at Valdosta State University since 1967, and I currently hold the rank of professor. When someone in the community asked me recently what I do at the university, I told her that I offer students the hope and faith that they can weave their own dream catchers. She thought I was kidding. I had to be more tangible in my answer, so I told her unhesitatingly that I teach "students." She still didn't understand. Finally, I surrendered and gave her the tangible answer she wanted: I told her that I teach history.
My initial answers, however, reflect the journey I've been on for the last five years, during which I have been painfully breaking out of, displacing, and replacing the pattern of being a distant, cerebral research professor with the pattern of being a whole, caring, real, human teacher who sees each student as a unique individual human being who truly is a miracle of life and is capable of success.
It was a journey that began on a fateful October day in 1991, during a "challenge session" at The Family Learning Center at Hyde School in Bath, Maine, which my younger son, Robby, was then attending. I, at the age of 50 and after 25 years at the head of the classroom, experienced an explosive emotional nova of liberating self-reflection, self-examination, and spiritual revelation that ultimately was to shake me out of personal and professional stagnation. It opened personal issues -- ones that were long suppressed, denied, or ignored -- that were crucial in shaping who I was and what I did, and that were crucial to face if I was to reshape both myself and what I was doing. It launched me on a never-ending journey of examining my values, reviewing my priorities, ripping away my masks, questioning my identity, examining my purposes, reviewing my life's personal and professional goals, identifying my weaknesses, and discovering my strengths.
As that epiphany brought on a dawn that, in turn, penetrated my own personal and professional darkness, I began to see how I had been bringing my Ph.D. and scholarly resume into the classroom with me. I began to realize that while I had been "professoring" my subject, I had unwittingly erected a glass wall between me and most of the students. The glass wall was invisible to me, even though it acted like an opaque curtain that shut out the sights and sounds of the classroom. I didn't see it or feel it; I didn't know it was there; I didn't know what I was letting it do.
Up until that moment of realization at Hyde School, I used to regularly "joke" disparagingly about the students by saying that at Valdosta State, we had on campus 1,700 people, of whom 1,200 were "just bodies" and 500 were students. "It's just a joke," I'd always say to myself. "It doesn't mean anything." After all, I always said it with a self-deceiving smile. I never "poormouthed" any student with a disparaging tone or a sneer on my face. I always cheered students on with a "rah, rah, rah, you can do it." Lordy, was I good with the academic pom-poms, cartwheels, and back flips.
The sad thing -- the releasing thing -- I started discovering five years ago was that despite my self-professing good intentions, my ever-present smile, and my cheerleading of the students, that joke did reflect my beliefs. Yes, I was their cheerleader on the mountain summit, loudly urging them on with "go, go, go" and "you can do it" and "just try harder" accompanied by supporting boisterous gyrations and body contortions. But only a few students made it up the slope on their own. Many hesitantly climbed only partially up the slope, and some of them slid back down. Others made unenthused attempts and stopped at the first stumble. Still others -- many others -- never made the attempt at all.
Whatever the case, I'd walk away consoling myself that I'd tried. I'd given it my best shot. If the students couldn't climb, it was all the students' fault. And I really believed it, because I was so high up in the clouds on that summit that I couldn't clearly see each distant student down in the valley. I didn't try to see what factors might be limiting their success. Enough students made the climb that I made no effort to come down off the summit to the base of the mountain -- to see if each of the students had the proper equipment to make the climb, if each was practiced in the use of that equipment, if each knew the techniques of climbing, and if each had the courage to make an attempt at the climb. I didn't try. I didn't try to see if any of those supposed "didn't belongs" were capable and had potential. I didn't make the effort to look and listen, much less see and hear, beyond the subject and myself to those who I now know are sacred, individual human beings, but whom I had lumped together, in a dehumanizing stereotype, as "bodies."
I didn't want to be bothered with the distracting work, the wasteful energy, the unappreciated and unrecognized labors, and the time-consuming attention. What was the use of making the difficult effort of engaging with bodies I had perceived as unengaging, of trying to reach those I had already subconsciously decided were unreachable? So I didn't really bother trying to discover what I could do to reach out with a helping hand to help them learn how to learn and become their own learners, how to cope, how to hope and dream, and how to believe in themselves. I felt I had done enough just to let them grace my presence and share in my knowledge.
It's only been during the last five years that I've left my degrees and resume at the door. It took me years to change my profession from one of professing my subject to one of caring about students and helping them. It took me years to discover that until I stopped being a passive cheerleader and came down from the summit to become an active and involved climbing coach -- concerned with equipping students for the climb and teaching them the techniques of the climb, and concerned with each person having to make the climb -- I wouldn't know the power of a little sincere "I truly care about you," a bit of concerned "I'm on your side," a supporting "I really want to teach you," an encouraging "you really count," a genuine "I'm glad you're here," and an honest, empathic, and real understanding of "I know what it's like to ... ."
Consequently, it has only been during the last five years that I've begun experiencing that almost indescribable, wondrously fulfilling, meaningful, and purposeful feeling of having touched someone and made a difference.
These last five years since that miraculous moment at Hyde School -- when I started becoming conscious of that invisible barrier, bursting through it, breaking it, and shattering it, and I started standing in community with both myself and those around me -- have been tough years and painful years. But they have also been wonderful years, releasing years of metamorphosis and discovery. As I wrote in the first volume of Random Thoughts: "I consider this breakthrough one of the most important personal and professional moments of my life. On that day at Hyde, I started hammering away at and tearing down the walls, and I started to throw the locks and keys away. It was a time to find the strength and courage to admit that I needed to face up to and start letting go of the old illusions and fears, for overwhelming and new possibilities and potentials. As Pink Floyd's lyrics from 'Coming Back to Life' say, 'I knew the moment had arrived for killing the past and coming back to life.'"
As I was thinking about this introductory Random Thought this morning, images of that journey kept popping into my head. About a mile or so into my walk, as the dark sky started to give way to the coming dawn, the muted blues and purples and reds and oranges and yellows coloring the clouds reminded me of something some students chalked in bold, multicolored letters a few days ago on the concrete walk at the entrance to one of the university's buildings. In large, pastel colors, they wrote: "SCHMIER RULES!" And this aging Deadheader started thinking over and over again of that great line from Jerry Garcia: "What a long, strange trip it's been." Only five years ago, the students would have written: "SCHMIER SUCKS!"
As I continued on my walk, a host of other images flooded my mind. There was the picture from a few months ago, when a student who was serving in a local restaurant, and whom I hadn't seen in a couple of terms, saw me enter with my wife, forgot the order she was taking from a customer, screamed out, "Dr. Schmier!", ran over, and gave me a hug, saying to my wife, "He's the best there is at VSU." Then there was the image of the time a year ago when the local chapter of the Kappa Delta sorority voted me their Teacher of the Month, awarding me a special shirt and presenting me a card signed by all of the sisters. The image appeared of being interviewed by the brothers of a fraternity that wanted me to become their faculty advisor. Across my mind flashed images and sounds of "Hi, Dr. Schmier" shouts coming from students across the campus, distant honks of car horns and waving hands sticking out from passing cars, students going out of their way to offer a handshake and a hello, and students going out of their way to get a Tootsie Pop in my office.
I saw the picture of a turquoise plastic cup sitting on my desk. A class gave it to me at the end of the term and handwrote in silver on it: "World's greatest teacher: Louis has class in this class." I treasure that cup as if it were a jewel-encrusted gold chalice fashioned by Faberge. It is in my collection of sacred objects of my teaching: a Kuumba idol a student carved for me, which you'll read about in a Random Thought entitled "Yemenja"; a "we won't let you be down" card signed by all the members of a class, which I discuss in "The Heart of Teaching"; a large sheet of butcher paper taped to the office wall, scrawled with all of the signatures of the students in a class as a hand-fashioned, makeshift birthday "card"; a multicolored, decorated sign that reads, "Dr. Schmier. You Do Make A Difference."; a homecoming button that you'll read about in "The Power of Caring"; and poems and letters, many of which you will read about in this volume.
One of the poems reads:
What a long, strange trip it's been since those days. I know that not because I think so or my colleagues say so, but because the students have spoken. Now, the drop rate in my classes is almost 0%! My classes are the first to fill up, and there is a waiting list of students clamoring to get in. I have journeyed to become what almost all students see as the most engaged, caring -- although still demanding -- real, honest, and human teacher on campus. In the eyes of the students, I have transformed into the "most loved teacher" on campus. It really has been a long, strange trip.
That's what this second volume of collected Random Thoughts is about: this continuing long, strange trip. This book is another series of snapshots in another album chronicling my arduous, uncomfortable, and, at times, painful -- but essential -- journey of exploration, discovery, transformation, and growth.
It is a journey that is more about me than any educational philosophy or teaching technique. It is a journey that involves what I suppose you might call a shift of mind and heart. I call it "a dawning of my soul" -- a spiritual journey overcoming the inertia of dark, deeply embedded perceptions about who I am, who the students are, and the purpose of what I do. It's a journey of overcoming barriers, building bridges, and creating community between me and myself as well as me and others, especially students. Above all, at the core, it is a painful journey of truth, from the darkness of unknowing and conscious deception to the dawning truth that made me see the reality about myself and everything I do -- the ways I was limiting my awareness, deceiving myself, and holding myself back.
It is a journey of truth that has deepened my understanding of how my actions and beliefs are a part of, and are linked with students in, an educational ecological system. It is a journey of truth that has made me realize that I need not be a captive of others or myself, and that I have the strength and courage to choose to change myself. It is a journey from talking to people to talking with people, to listening to and hearing them, to looking for and seeing them without being defensive or arrogant.
As I hope you have read in the introduction to the first volume of *Random Thoughts*, it is a journey that started with an acute and sudden awareness of and confrontation with myself, my ignorance, my narrowness, my incompetence, my selfishness, my weaknesses, my self-images, my needed growth areas, and my need to live in a state of never-ending learning, growth, development, and change. It is a journey that has taken me from looking outward for approval to looking inward for my own uplifting, aspiring, internal, energizing, directing vision. It is a journey that has taken me from a dreary sense of routine and boredom and failure to excitement and exhilaration and happiness and purpose. It is a journey that has taken me from seeing teaching as a necessary but not-so-serious, income-getting job to seeing teaching as a mission. It is a journey that has taken me from centering on myself to understanding that I cannot identify myself without others. It is a journey that has taken me from deluded comfort to compelling courage for risk-taking and experimentation. It is a journey that has opened me to the multiple ways in which I can influence both my growth and that of others, see more and more my connectedness to those in the classroom, and see more and more the interdependence between my beliefs and perceptions on the one hand and my actions with students on the other. It is a journey that has taken me from finding fault in, pointing fingers at, and heaping blame on students to pointing fingers at and heaping blame on myself, and to being aware that students are -- as are we all -- human beings governed by forces that they have not yet learned how to perceive, cope with, and control. It is a journey that has taken me from seeing only myself to a commitment to something larger than myself -- to a vision beyond my self-interest that gives me energy, excitement, and enthusiasm that my narrow, self-centered, professional goals cannot.
It is a journey of seeing teaching as a lifelong process -- a way of traveling -- rather than as a talent I possess and something I do. It is a journey that has led me to see that my mastery of teaching involves not just necessary subject competence and pedagogical skills and techniques, but a spiritual vitality that allows me to approach life with creative force. It is a journey that has taken me from being ignorant of the presence of my spirit to becoming aware of it and then on to believing in its strength and finally on to knowing about its source of power. It is a journey that has opened my eyes to understand that my own power to change lies in my attitude -- that it is my spirit which reaches out with an invisible hand to grab the intellect and which brings it to bear. It is a journey that has convinced me to pursue my emotional development with the same intensity with which I once pursued my scholarly achievements, and to understand that my reservoirs of spiritual vigor offer me the greatest means of attaining my potential.
It is a journey that has taken me from planning a course, organizing information, and controlling a class to realizing the sacredness of my responsibility to the lives of so many people -- my responsibility to provide for each student's higher needs of self-respect and self-actualization.
It is a journey that has helped me see education anew: it has taken me from seeing education as a transmission and taking in of information -- "I covered all of the material required by the course" and "I learned all about that in a course" -- to seeing education as a means of constant generation, creation, re-perception, and extension -- a means of increasing the ability to create the future.
It is a journey that has helped me confront what I've come to see as some myths about teaching: talking is teaching; the more material covered, the better the course and the better the teacher; listening is learning; if I know it, I can teach it; teachers are not responsible for student success; learning can only take place with the teacher present; learning can only take place in a one-teacher, one-classroom, "x"-number-of- minutes, "y"-credit-hour course; an education is the sum of largely unrelated "y"-credit-hour courses; not all students have talent and ability; not all students can succeed; we've done enough if we've given people access to our campuses; teachers don't need to change, they just need better students; to be a good teacher, I have to be a researcher; fun and excitement get in the way of the seriousness of learning.
It is an arduous journey that has helped me put a vision, a mission, a commitment into practice. It is a journey that has taken me from loving my subject to loving each student. It is a journey that has taken me from seeing solely with the mind's eye to seeing with the heart's eye as well. It is a journey that has taken me from seeking rewards to seeing that the journey itself is the reward.
In the course of my travels from there to wherever I currently am and wherever I am about to go, I have come to terms with three hard truths. First, the difficulty of the journey is not so much constantly facing and dealing with change as it is having to constantly change myself. Second, if my teaching is going to be transformed, my heart has to be transformed, and as my heart is transformed, my teaching cannot help but change. And finally, my potential can only be striven for to the extent that my perception, sentience, awareness, and consciousness of myself and others are altered, broadened, deepened, and sharpened -- and then broadened and deepened and sharpened still further. I need to guide, define, select, evaluate, and synthesize not what's out there, but what's inside here. To learn about myself, I have to ask myself some hard personal and professional questions: Who am I? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? Why am I in the classroom? What is the purpose of what I do? What is my philosophy of education? What are my principles of teaching? What are my weaknesses? What are my strengths? All of these truths involve attacking self-depreciation and self-inflation -- both of which are probably self-deception -- and observing and evaluating, as best I can, how I act out what I believe.
I no longer see myself as an expert in a particular subject or as a transmitter who merely delivers knowledge to some distant, impersonal receiver sitting in a chair. If I can paraphrase myself, I now think that we educators so often confuse method with spirit, quantity with quality, information with knowledge, performance with learning, and grades with achievement. I now think that we worry so much, too much, about teaching methods, subject content, and assessment. I now believe that we're wrong if we think of education solely in terms of being a transmission and reception of stock information. I now think that we're wrong if we believe that IQs, SAT scores, grades, and degrees have real bearing on a satisfying life.
Don't get me wrong. I think these indicators have a place. But maybe, in the long run, the development of an ability, the nurturing of a talent, the discovery of a potential, the uncovering of an inner worth, the planting of a faith in one's self, the awakening of a native creativity, and the stirring of a courage to stand the hurt of failure and try again are more important for the student -- and the teacher -- than the handing out and acquisition of some facts and axioms, the assigning of some grade, and the getting of a degree.
I now teach by the "seat of my soul." I now worry less about methods and more about the creative impulse, passion, perceptions and attitudes, and intuition that energize, invigorate, and fortify methods with vitality and force. I now worry less about pedantry and more about creating a classroom climate that holds students spellbound and sweeps them up in unbounded excitement of learning -- a climate blending playfulness and seriousness, in which a feeling of well-being dominates. I now worry more about creating a classroom climate that shuns the tedious, the mundane, the prosaic, the stale, the dull, the boring, and all of the other classroom "black holes" that won't let the light of learning shine forth. I now worry more about creating a classroom climate that encourages the desire to learn, fosters an active interest in what is being taught, and sustains a focus on the subject -- a climate that entices students with timing, freshness, surprise, invention, innovation, flair, fabrication, suspense, imagination, dexterity, improvisation, flexibility, adaptation to the unexpected, and idiosyncrasy. I now talk less about teaching as a career and talk excitedly more about teaching as a calling, a mission, an intrinsic part of the good life. I now talk about teaching as a satisfying craft that is important as a way of conceiving personal and social involvement, social responsibility, and contribution, and as a doorway to new experiences, new sources of satisfaction, gains of wisdom and humility, and growth and enhancement of life -- for both student and teacher.
I now see myself as a designer and constant renovator of a learning community who is more interested in the students than the subject. I am now more concerned with the learning of the students than with my teaching. I am now more concerned with reaching for students than reaching the height of professional reputation. I think about and experiment with such techniques as skits, games, scavenger hunts, arts, etc., to create a "teacherless" learning environment in which I do not have to be present for or participate in every structured learning activity in which I struggle to empower the students to become their own learners.
As I travel on this long, strange trip and alter my sense of myself, I continue coming to the conclusion that if students are not achieving, it is not because they do not have the potential to achieve. It is because while we in higher education may offer students access to the inner chambers of our ivory tower, we are not necessarily committed to their success; it is because we professors are inclined to merely provide instruction rather than focus our efforts to ensure learning.
So I have journeyed in the classroom from an instruction mode to a learning mode; from worrying about the quality of my teaching to the quality of student learning; from merely transferring information to rousing student discovery; from the constrictions of a physical classroom environment to the openness of a learning community; from being concerned only with the brain to becoming holisticly concerned with the intimate interaction of intellect, spirit, and emotion; from merely covering material to helping ensure that the student has the opportunity to learn whatever is covered; from believing that learning is teacher-centered to seeing that it is student- centered; from believing that education requires only an excited teacher to understanding that it requires both an excited teacher and excited students; from believing that talent and ability are the preserve of the select to seeing that all students are talented and have ability; from believing that any Ph.D. can teach to understanding that empowering learning is a challenging and complex craft requiring talents other than those needed for research and publication; from sorting and classifying students into those who are college material and those who can't "cut it" -- as if intelligence and ability are scarce commodities -- to believing in each student and developing each student's competency and talent; from a competitive, individualized learning environment to a cooperative, collaborative, and supportive learning community; from being concerned with performance to being concerned with character.
I have journeyed from wanting to be judged by how well I perform in teaching terms -- how long my resume is, how well I lecture, what material I cover, whether I show interest in my subject and have a command of it, whether I have respect for students, whether I engage students -- to wanting to be evaluated on whether the students are learning and on what they are learning. I have come to recognize that the chief agents in the process of learning are the students, and, thus, they must be active discoverers of their own learning.
The question I ask is: Do students graduate from our colleges and universities with a "Bachelor of Experiences" or merely a "Bachelor of Grades"? Once again to paraphrase myself, this time from a Random Thought I call, "What We Get Paid To Do," I have decided that an education should go beyond the narrow confines of subject matter and vocational skills. Education is the learning of a basic set of personal and social values and skills that include: understanding that life is teamwork, and, thus, we must all learn how to work together; learning how to work through miscommunications and the conflicts that arise from individuality and diversity; learning how to acquire a love for excellence; learning a tolerance for and respect of others; acquiring a commitment to each other and to the dignity of all; and developing a love of learning, a commitment to free inquiry, and a devotion to free expression. An education should instill in all students genuine, loving, lifelong eagerness to learn, flexibility across fields, and love for their chosen lives. It should foster a life of continual growth and development. It should encourage and assist students in developing the basic values needed for learning and living: self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, intellectual honesty, humility, and compassion for others.
It is walking on the streets of Valdosta, before the sun rises, when and where a lot of my inner journey has taken place. Walking, for me, has become more than just putting one foot ahead of the other, swinging my arms, and breathing deeply. I walk to do more than keep my arteries clear, my heart strong, my muscles limber, my body toned, my weight down -- kinda -- and my lungs clean -- to do more than feel better and hopefully live longer. Because of my epiphany, I started asking, and I still ask, myself, "Why do I want to stay in shape?" To feel better? Yes. To live longer? Yes. Why? What will I do with that extra time when I feel better? My answer goes beyond physical health, arteries, lungs, cholesterol, fat, muscle, corpuscles, alveoli, heart muscle, and energy. Now, I walk to stay in spiritual "shape" as well.
The pre-dawn, for me, is alone time. It's good time. It's content time. It's peaceful time. It's essential time. At this quiet time, as I freely walk among the light and dark contrasts, mixed textures, and angles and squares and circles that fill both the neighborhood landscape and my inner terrain, my mind and soul are always busy places, pulsating with reflections, thoughts, questions, answers, and searches. It's a time when I can freely struggle to reach out for and touch myself so that I can reach out for and touch the rest of the day.
Out from these walks and the journeys into my self spontaneously emerge most of the Random Thoughts. They both have become necessities in order for me to acquire and maintain the capability to become the kind of person I am capable of becoming. Like walking on the asphalt, I walk on the Internet to reflect on who I am and the ultimate purpose of what I do.
Do I share the Random Thoughts with you to inspire, as someone once suggested? Yes. To touch others? Yes. To encourage and support others? Yes. To seek their encouragement and support? Yes. To share me, what I believe, and what I do? Yes. To celebrate teaching and to commemorate student learning? Yes. But I don't pretend to offer a tested "cooking recipe" or anything "set in stone" because my journey is not your journey. I can't -- and I don't want to -- just "sign you up." All I have to share is a set of values, a sense of mission, a vision, and some experiences.
No less important -- and perhaps most important for me -- I share my Random Thoughts, in an open journal, as a series of mental and spiritual models that turn my mirror inward, to unearth my internal images of the world, to bring those pictures to the surface, to hold them up to scrutiny, to expose my own thinking and feelings to the influence of others, to stay on my journey, to maintain my commitment to my own growth, to continue to explore my inner sphere, to hear and see those difficult sounds and sights of what is going on with me, to (in a paraphrase of Proverbs) drink water from my own well, and to honor teaching's mission.
With each sentence, I probe my soul. With each paragraph, I talk with and struggle to hear -- and, especially, to listen to -- my internal voices. With each completed Random Thought, I struggle to take off a mask, open a door, come out from behind a wall. Word by word, day by day, I struggle to discover a little bit more of myself -- to reach out and touch caringly and a little more lovingly that special person called ME. Each morning I share is a fragment in time to see, hear, and feel a fragment of myself, the world about me, and life. The sum of my reflections is an accumulation of gradual learning of how to become in tune with my uniqueness "in here" and how to have the strength to be myself in the face of the demands and expectations of others "out there." I think that's critical, because I stand a better chance of keeping my eye on the deeper purpose of what I do, leaving the world a better place, dealing with or harnessing things "out there," and dealing with others, embracing them, and enhancing their lives if I carefully define what I am and want to do "in here." And what I do "out there" -- my values in use -- must surely reflect my espoused values.
This has become all the more important recently, for I have been wrestling on a personal level with staying focused on my mission in the face of success -- for want of a better word -- and reputation. The pressure to write, to travel, and to share grows with every shared Random Thought. Most of the distracting pressure is coming from "out there" and testing my commitment "in here": one published book on how my application of character development works in my classes, this second volume of Random Thoughts, and requests for articles, journal columns, conference workshops, and master teacher seminars. So far, I have been able to keep focused by never letting anything I am doing be more important than a student -- by never saying, "I'm busy, come back later," and by refusing to cancel more than two classes per quarter, in spite of the pressures to travel, talk about my educational philosophy and why I believe what I believe and do what I do, and demonstrate what I do in conference workshops and master teacher seminars.
I share to keep a whole bunch of "oughts" and "shoulds" in front of me as comparisons and contrasts to my "ams" and "dos." My sharing is a way of wondering about my value and my worth; it's a quest for a place to belong; it's a way of exploring who I am, what I'm doing, and where I'm going; it's a means of trying to see myself and to hear myself; it's a way of reading my own story and understanding my part in the story of life. Each experience, each reflection is a step on that road; each is my attempt to take as many steps as possible, for each step gives additional meaning to the road I have already traveled.
And yet it is proving to be a never-ending story, for I feel that my quest to discover -- or uncover -- the authentic me is like trying to capture the will-o'-the-wisp. I know that the kinds of breakthroughs and experiences I have had in life in general and in my profession specifically -- as well as interactions with different people, like you -- can and should constantly change me and transform the way I look at things and at people. These interactions and reflections give, or should give, me a human perspective that makes the way I do things as important as what I do.
But will this realization bring me nearer to my authenticity, to who I am? What is my true self? Where is it? I was reading an article on immunology in a recent issue of *Discover* magazine. In this piece, Polly Matzinger, a maverick in her field, talks about how our body is constantly acquiring tolerance to our own proteins as we change. The self, she says, in a physical sense, is constantly being defined anew. Is that another way of saying that self, in the spiritual or emotional sense, doesn't really exist at all? I like to think that this thing we call "self" or "me" is more of a process of creating my future self -- that it's a state of becoming rather than an actual state of being.
If so, what, then, is being authentic or seeking authenticity? I wonder what authenticity really means. I guess it means "being yourself" -- your true self. But what does that really mean? I don't think it means "this is me" or "this is where I am" or "I am satisfied." People in my profession especially like to think this way -- that we have "arrived" and have no need for change and growth, except to acquire new information. I've been in the desert recently, tempted by voices that say, "You've got it. You're there." But I know that the moment I celebrate that "I've got it" is the moment I've lost it; that the second I decide "I'm there," I'm really nowhere.
I think "being myself" means "this is just a starting point" or "this is where I am heading" or "this is what I am capable of becoming." It doesn't mean being in stasis within a cocoon. It means forever metamorphosing into whatever it is I am capable of becoming, while emerging from a cocoon. We strive for, but never reach, our full potential. It's like saying that our best today can always be better tomorrow. Authenticity, then, should be an unending, step-by-step, lifetime process of gradual learning, change, development, and growth. It should be, as I have said about teaching, like climbing a mountain that has no summit. You just have to learn to love climbing. I think that's the secret to remaining young while you grow older -- to retaining a spiritual dexterity while your body loses it physical agility.
So don't ask me how I would describe my style of teaching, my pedagogy. I don't have a cubby hole in which I would I place myself, and I never want one. I don't want to be categorized or defined or confined. Categories may identify, but they are also restricting. Too often, we are careless enough to think that we are using these classifications when, in fact, they may be using us -- confining us. I struggle not to be caged by my technique.
We teachers so often demand that students dream our dreams rather than help them dream their own dreams; we so often want them to walk in our footprints rather than cut their own trails. I struggle to teach in any way that will help the students hear their own voices, inspire students to discover their own resources, encourage students to make their own mistakes, and support students as they seek their own solutions. To do that, I teach hard, think hard, feel hard, teach out loud, feel out loud, and reach out -- in any way I can. I take my teaching -- in whatever manner -- to wherever it encourages students to express what they feel and wherever it assists them in discovering where they want to take their learning.
And so, within this context, what kind of teacher do I want to be? The same as the kind of person I want to be. I want to be a teacher who has something of a glow, a sort of hallowed atmosphere enveloping me -- not so that I can be personally spotlighted or canonized, but so that I can serve as a model or a midwife. When students are around me, I want them to be able to breath safety, honesty, adequacy and worth, peace, love, support, encouragement, and courage. I want to be a sacred guiding light, so that each of them has the opportunity to begin experiencing a transformation of consciousness, to acquire a reverence for learning, and to begin risking the pursuit of whatever each is capable of becoming.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier email@example.com Department of History http://www.halcyon.com/arborhts/louis.html Valdosta State University Valdosta, GA 31698 /~\ /\ /\ 912-333-5947 /^\ / \ / /~ \ /~\__/\ / \__/ \/ / /\ /~ \ /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\ -_~ / "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\ _ _ / don't practice on mole hills" -\____