Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.
Date: Wed, 6 Jan 1999 11:24:12 -0500 (EST)
Brrrrrrrrrr! I was cold out there today!!! I could hang meat from the trees without worrying about ruin. Swooning "Summertime" as I staggered through the glacial air didn't help. What's with all this global warming stuff. Thermals, sweats, gloves, hats, all were just about useless. My nose was running faster than the faucets I kept open to keep the pipes from bursting. I even went out late, thinking it would warm up as the sun came up. It had, to 18 degrees !!!! It was one of those few times I couldn't help but have a cold shoulder and icy stare. I came into the house after four miles knowing exactly what a frozen mackerel feels like. I stood in front of my opened refrigerator to warm up!! Right now as I struggle to thaw out, teeth still chattering, body still shivering, stiff fingers barely able to bend, I'm all for global warming. About the only good thing with this deep chill is that the mosquitos were grounded by the weight of ear muffs, gloves, scarfs.
Anyway, I've been thinking about a message I had received from a graduate student about to go out into the cold world. She asked me for advise about how to be a good teacher. I was gratified that she should ask me, but I never really give advise because, to put it quickly, what works for me is because I've worked on me. But, I can tell her what I feel, think, and do. Then, she can take it from there. Thought I'd share my answer to her with ya'll. So, here goes.
You know if I have learned anything about teaching and learning in the course of my inner journey and my transformation from a pontificating professor of history to an involved teacher of students since I had my epiphany that fateful October in 1991 at Hyde School, it is four things. First, I think teaching, life in general, demands that I never lose the slow magic of having a romance with students--if romance that is the right word--and replace it with rushed technique. Every time I find myself doing that, however slightly, I feel a little dazed and empty, as if I had forgotten to eat. Second, at the beginning of my transformation, there were the forays into uncharter territory, exploration, adventure, serendipity. expectation, anticipation, There still are, and that's the real secret for me! I make sure the renaissance goes on forever, that the giddiness and fumbling of innocence and naivete remain as I am forever trying new steps to improve the old dance, of forever learning new dances, forever inventing, forever creating and enjoying and experimenting, forever going to the edge, forever jumping off the edge learning to soar even higher and farther and more graceful. The third lesson I have learned is that the ultimately goal is not to master what you already know so that you can do it blindfolded in your sleep with one hand tied behind your back. The ultimate goal is to continue discovering that you never will master it totally however much you try.
The final but most important lesson I started to learn is that it's simply a matter of my attitude. Not that simple? Well, it is. If I want to be deliriously happy about and damn good at teaching, I need the right attitude edge. If I wanted to be good at teaching, I had to believe I could; and if I believed I could, I just needed, and continue to need, to do whatever it took to reach that goal. To fight against burnt out, to make sure I don't think in dulling terms "endless hours" and "endless days," to guard against getting the routine down and getting bored and getting into a by-the-book rut and getting into a reputation funk, I need to constantly lube my attitude with some tune ups just as I need to do to keep my precious 1983, 280Z running smoothly on all cylinders. I had to, and still have to, break through or drive around mental roadblocks that I don't even know are there, roadblocks that keep me from reaching my ultimate destination: happiness, personal growth, professional success. Now I'm not talking about major stuff like kicking little dogs. I talking about those times when my spirit sputters or stalls, when I may mull things over too much, when I've been hitching a ride on routine, when I am caressing a line in my resume.
Yet, I have discovered that the comforting confines of experience and reputation can inspire a certain confidence, boldness, youthfulness and fun. My intensity and interest is limited only by my imagination, creativity, and stamina. My enthusiasm, my imagination, my creativity, as Einstein often said, is far more important than my expertise however important my knowledge may be. Teaching is the journey, not just a destination. It has to be absorbed in the intimacy and spirituality of the journey, be absorbed in the experience.
To unduly focus on technique only heightens vulnerability and anxiety. I learned to bag up the "Now, that's how it must always be done." I've packed away the "These are the absolute rule about how it HAS to be." I find that when I think teaching must include this or that, must involve doing this or that, I lose out on other sources of accomplishment; I miss a lot of reasons to be inspired; I ignore a lot to stimuli to aspire. So, I've stopped teaching by the numbers. I don't predict more disasters than Nostradamus. I don't make more guarantees than an infomercial. Sure, the unknown is scary. Too many people safeguard themselves by try to guess what will happen or want guaranteed results; too many people jump to a lot of negative conclusions. Been there; done that. I was an expert player at the comforting "it's not going to work" and safe "how do I know it will work" game. It was a way of having my worst fears confirmed which was a lot less devastating that having my highest hopes dashed to smithereens on the rocks. The truth is that when you take a stab in the dark, you rarely hit the mark. So, trying to predict the future is just a way of wasting a lot of time in the present and watching the quality of your teaching nosedive or stagnate. But, I learned that if I can't finesse what's going to be, at least I can control the way I think about it, and that changed my fortune teller tune. Now, I look, one day at a time, at each day of my teaching as a set of separate moments, and deal with each isolated bite-size, digestible-size moment as it comes up.
I have gone from a safe "why the hell?" to a exciting "what the hell!" From a rationalizing "why" to an adventurous "why not." From a secure "show me" to an risky "let's see." I've learned to go with each moment without obsessing over the previous or next, or resting on laurels.
Ah, resting on laurels is dangerous. Let me talk about that. I fight not to lounge on my laurels, to prance around my reputation as I did up to less than a decade ago. You can't garner a good reputation and coast the rest of the way on credit cruise control. You don't stop to pat yourself on the back for making a good play because the game is going on around you. I suppose that it's okay to milk all the mileage out of a the rep that you can. But, when what you do isn't keeping pace with your image, there comes a point when you face the tough truth that doing a bang-up job is a lot tougher than being known for doing a bang-up job. The best way to avoid this disparity is to treat each day of each class of each semester as something new. I say to myself, "I've never been here before. I don't know any of these people." Why? At least for me, it's because I try harder when I am in unfamiliar situations. When I feel that my bark is louder than my bite, I close the door, lean back, unwrap a Tootsie Pop, suck on it and ask myself, "Louis, how would you act if I had to make a first impression. What would you do differently." Then, I muster up the courage and enthusiasm to show myself and them what I'm made of and what I am still made of.
I go into each class, each day, with a naive eye, with something of an innocence, a nervousness, like I am doing it for the first time. In reality, I am doing it for the first time because I concentrate on the "whos," the different people who are different each day in those academic cells we call classrooms, so that I can struggle to tailor to them the "whats" and "whys." So, I wake up my senses when I teach. I pay attention to every sound and movement and sight ready to make an adjustment, to dump, to introduce, to completely alter, to keep. I enjoy each moment for what it is, not for what I hope--or dread--it will lead to. You see, I've learned that it's the angels who are in the details, not the devil.
I refuse to believe that whatever experience I might have acquired after 34 years in the classroom, or whatever imagination and creativity I might possess, or however much confidence I might have in myself, that my teaching is yet as great as it can be. I won't let myself have any outlook that gets so low or so high that I don't realize that there are unlimited possibilities. I won't settle on a pedagogical comfort zone that's a little too comfy for my own good and the good of the students. I am constantly different, from semester to semester, class to class, day to day, if for no other reason than I don't have to waste time and energy busting a rut. The unexpected sparks my inspiration and excitement. I understand that not every day will be sunny, not every technique will work. But, I walk the tight rope betweening demanding the impossible and settling for so-so teaching either. Of course, I never know what is impossible since I believe impossible things are being done every day. But, I do know, my conscience let's me know, what "so-so" is. I don't pin my expectations on a specific action or destination to achieve satisfaction. If I did, all I would need is to have is a small change in the specifics to create disappointment. If I did, my expectations would become so low, I'd be destined for nothing but loser teaching. So, I want to be, and work hard at being, more happening than habit, staying out of the restricting confines of a comfort zone, risking to fall flat on my face or on my butt. If what I have to do veers too far from the familiar route, so be it. I don't write it off without a fighting chance. For me, static attitudes make me feel as if I am idling at a green light while traffic passes me by. I know that it is tough to take an unfamiliar route. That is what my inner journey is all about these past eight years. But, the truth is that playing it safe would give me only a false sense of security. When I am open to new ideas, new ways, I create the different options; I gain more control over the direction of my life and how my life develops. I find that if I look at my life as an entire learning experience, I'll be a lot more willing to go out on a limb and let students climb out there, and a lot more forgiving of myself and any of them for falling off the limb.
So, if I have to give advice to this aspiring a new teacher, this is what is would be: Have a healthy love of life. It makes teaching fill the desire to make it last to the fullest: on the first day; on the last day; on all the days in between. It helps to insure that the "whews" and "yuks" will be few while the "goshes" and "wows" will be overwhelmingly rampant. Be in the moment at the moment every moment, making the most of yourself, being authentic. Have fun each day whether you're doing something old hat or soemthing experimental, something traditional or something off the wall. Believe that any student would kill to be in your class, that you would kill to be in your class. Do all that, and your classroom will rock for both you and the students.
Make it a good day. --Louis-- Louis Schmier firstname.lastname@example.org 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" -\____