On Teaching, Part IV

As I was saying:

(9) Ninth, with greater frequency, I am seeing my role as a teacher is that of a mentor, that is, I assert my authority by stepping back and deferring that authority to the students. I quiet myself so that I can listen to the students. If I want, as I did until a little over a decade ago, the importance of the spotlight on center stage I should go to Broadway. Since then, I’ve surrendered the manipulative and conflict mode to a collaborative and persuasive mode. Being a teacher involves persuading, encouraging, and supporting students to take themselves with a “let’s see what happens” attitude into new worlds, to do new things, to go off in new directions and thereby expand their world, develop their latent talents, search for and get a glimpse of their potential. There does not exist one student–at least, I have found one–who does not possesses a unique gift somewhere within him or her though it may not be and probably isn’t yet apparent. To be sure, that is a positive assumption. It’s back to that “F”aith-based educator thing.

Nevertheless, almost in every way and every day, I both challenge myself and each student to be free to look under each of our own tree for that gift and have the courage to start unwrapping it to see what lies inside. To be sure, for a coterie of reasons they hesitant, equivocate, and even resist. No one said being a mentor was easy. Nevertheless, I say to the student, as well as myself, “Go for the gold. Mine for it. Dig it out. Smelt it. See what you come up with. See what happens. Think about what is says about what lies within you and what more lies within you.”

(10) Tenth, teaching for the majority of academics is far too often simply a matter of continuing to mimic their experiences as students rather than breaking out of the mould.. Like Steven Sample, I, too, often am amazed at the extent of the herd instinct among self-proclaimed individual thinkers and the extent to which so many so easily and so quickly submit to and conform to accepted teaching convention. That position may be comfortable and safe in the pursuit of tenure and reputation, but, to paraphrase Sample, no one can copy their way to excellence, no one can reach for the stars with their hands in their pockets, no one can set sail on new adventures while anchored in safe harbor, and no one can stand out while he or she is sitting down. It’s that being your own person thing, that “contrarian” thing, of which Sample writes so eloquently with insight from experience. Let’s go back to the “F”ear-based education. Steven Sample quite accurately says, congenital naysayers, however well intentioned many may be, are among the greatest stumbling blocks to harvesting creative thinking and imaginative innovation. I would add, if we let them bar the way.

My friend, Brian Johnson, just sent me a quote by Henri Bergson: “To exist is to change; to change is to mature; to mature is to go on creating oneself endlessly.” And so, the art of teaching must be an ever-changing work in progress, an ever-incomplete and an ever-uncompleted endless journey. The teacher is both master and journeyman, constantly mentoring while constantly being mentored, constantly learning the art and craft of teaching no less than keeping up on his or her discipline, constantly in a state of flux, always on the move, always adopting and adapting, always drawing on constant study, apprenticing, practicing, experimenting, risking. Teaching isn’t just an action; it’s a state of being that takes a lot of effort to continue.

Maybe we shouldn’t look for the easy, comfortable, and safe way. Maybe we should hope for difficulties and challenges. We often tell students “no pain, no gain.” Why do so many of us often think we can achieve painless gain? As a teacher I should always be at the edge and on edge; at times I should be somewhat uncomfortable and feel a tad unbalanced; I should always be “sweating;” I should always do whatever it takes. Teaching can be difficult and disconcerting; it can look foolish to naysayers. I mean you will look “silly” as you learn to ski.

There is a Zen tale, often called “Empty Your Cup”:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master to learn all he could about Zen philosophy. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked and talked and talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor’s cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself.

“It’s flowing over. It’s full! No more will go in!” the professor blurted.

“You are like this cup,” the master replied, “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

In a convoluted way, there’s a conjoining of this storied professor and my darling eighteen month bubbling, stumbling, babbling, Natalie, “Little Miss Getting Into Everything of 2003.” She and this professor personify a Zen saying, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilites, but in the expert there are few.”

My own teaching has a light, feathery aire because I’m having a lot of fun at doing what I do and doing what I do is fun. I have to admit that while I function as an adult and the expert, many times I have to force myself to be “adult-ish.” I just will not let go of the child within me. At the age of 62 (63 on All Saints’ Day), I still am uncomfortable being call a “man.” For some reason I’ve never felt grown up. I feel like a giggly kid inside. I much prefer to call myself an “experienced teenager.” You know maybe that’s one of the deep, dark, secret assessments of the teacher: If you didn’t know your age, how old would you say you are?

How many of us have started out with a child’s fearless, flexibile, and elastic adventurous curiosity, and have slowly replaced it or better yet allowed it to be replaced with the turgor of either our or someone else’s certainty? The one statement that still sticks in my mind when my new Dean introduced herself to the A & S faculty at the beginning of this semester was her assertion to us to be free to use in our teaching that “let’s see what happens” wonder of a child without worrying about mistakes and to be free of worrying about making mistakes. She subtly was offering her support for us to challenge conventional teaching methods and thinking that put a restrictive fence around creativity, that do not allow possibilities to be investigated, that leave ability and talent underdeveloped, and that stifle spiritual fulfillment. I wonder why she felt it necessary to emphasize that it was okay to make a mistake in the effort to improve our teaching? I wonder how many have taken her up on her offer?

Drawing on personal experience, I am certain we should and could train ourselves to open up, not to shut down. When it comes to teaching, what if we trained ourselves to always have an open spirit, a kind heart, and a curious mind when it comes to each student? What if we trained ourselves to be acceptable and open to all circumstances and to all people each day, without condition, without reservation, without hesitation, or without equivocation? What if we kept opening wider our heart? What if we understood whatever it is, is not always so. What if we confidently engaged our teaching profession as an endlessly living experiment? What if each day was a fresh start?

What excitement we’d experience if we every day we were “experienced beginners,” if we were open and accepting and flexible in the beginning! What enjoyment we’d receive if we continued to be open and accepting and flexible in the middle. And, what satisfaction we’d feel if we still had my Natalie’s free openness and acceptance and flexiblity and curiosity at the end. Imagine how we could think bigger, see farther, feel better. Imagine how our teaching, each day, would an exciting coat of many colors rather than a wet blanket of bland beige.

Well, this one got away from me, didn’t it. More later.

Make it a good day.

–Louis–

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