Teach Me How To Teach

What’s with this weather? Today I was out bundled up in my Carolina grubbies, stupidly walking in this low 30 degree air with a hacking cough and slightly stuffy nose that just won’t go away; last week it was shorts and a tee shirt. Until the last few days, when the chill put Spring on ice, March thought it was April. I know my flowers had been fooled by this mistaken identity into thinking Spring had been sprung early upon them: roses budding, weeds flourishing, amaryllis flowering, day lilies priming themselves, dogwoods blooming, tiger lily stems appearing, and stokesia bushing. I wouldn’t have put it passed by caladiums and hosta to have sneaked an early peek above ground. This coldness and warmth got me thinking of a message I had received over the weekend and an experience I thankfully had in the elevator of our local hospital.

The message was from an aspiring college professor who wanted to be more of a teacher than a researcher and who admitted that she had had little or no real preparation for the classroom. The crux of her message was a request, “Please teach me how to teach students and what I should be shooting for.”

I partially answered, “For starters, as a Zen story goes, you first have to teach yourself. So, I’ll ask you to ask yourself three questions. First, what do you want students to deeply learn? That is, what’s the purpose and meaning of what you want to do? Second, who are you? Third, who are the students? While you’re pondering the answers, let me give you a hint of where I am coming from so you can decide whether to continue our conversation.”

“You have to first learn that whatever methods or techniques you adopt, the first and foremost thing is to remember–and never forget–is that you’re in the people business. You’re a person; each of them is a person. That’s the core of my ‘Why,’ of the meaning and purpose of what I do. What I mean by that is that you have to remember who is teaching and to whom you are teaching is far more important than what you are transmitting or how you’re transmitting. In fact, your ‘why’ and ‘whom’ will tailor your ‘how.’ In other words, you have to get beyond thinking about only the subject, methods, and the faceless, impersonal, herding stereotype of “student,” and find ways to get to know the student for the individual human being she or he is; you’ve got to know what is on her or his mind and in her or his heart if you want to get inside and stay in her and his mind and heart. If you want to put meaning and purpose into your teaching beyond transmitting information, you have to know to whom you are teaching. When you teach, you have to remember where to look and whom to see; you have to know where to hear and to whom to listen. Don’t look solely at yourself; don’t think only of yourself; don’t just “me,” “I,” “me,” “I” your teaching Take the concentration on “me” and “I” out of your teaching and replace it with a focus on serving a “her” or “him.” You have to welcome, embrace, the inexperienced and imperfect but no less sacred people and help each help her/himself. You have to be ready to accept discomfort, inconvenience, and challenge. When you start doing that, you’ll start teaching individual people and realize that teaching is far more than the passing on of information, testing, and grading. You’ll see an education is far more about learning how to live the good life than merely learning how to make a good living.”

“Let me give you an example of what I mean by relating a conversation I had in a hospital elevator last Thursday. I had just left my mother-in-law’s room in a somewhat cold, depressed, and distracted state of mind. It was about 9 am. I was tired; I was down; I was drained. I had rushed to her room to help calm her down after we had received a call at 5:30 am from her sitter. She was confused, didn’t know where she was, and was afraid Susan and I wouldn’t find her. I was headed for class. It was her third stay in the hospital fighting pneumonia in two months while she was recovering from a fall in December that had cracked her tail bone and broken nine ribs. In this short time, she has gone from independent living, to assisted living, to respite care, to temporary rehab in a nursing home. The family was facing some hard decisions about how to avoid placing her permanently in a nursing home. Needless to say, I’ve been off my game since her fall in December as I struggled to stay in the game, recover from my hernia operation, and be there constantly for my Susan. Anyway with all this on my heart and soul, the elevator door opened. I went in, moved to the back of the car, and turned around. Behind me, in stepped a family. My mind and heart were a blank. I was in a haze and just staring. I really didn’t notice them. I was doing everything I could to get my juices flowing. I didn’t want to hurt the students in class. But, all I could think about my Susan’s sad, teary eyes and thinking that there can’t be a more pernicious disease than dehumanizing Alzheimer’s. Then, I vaguely heard the young lady, in her very early twenties, whisper, ‘Grandma, that’s my teacher we had been always talking about. That’s Dr. Schmier'”

“I slowly lifted my head, looked at her, and recognized her face. Although I didn’t remember her name, I did remember some long, candid, and challenging conversations I had had with her. She had been in class some years ago. I offered a very weak smile.”

“The person she was whispering to turned to look at me. ‘Are you Dr. Schmier? You really are Dr. Schmier, aren’t you?'”

“I barely nodded, ‘The one and only.'”

“‘Ain’t that the truth,” she chuckled. ‘I heard you had died.'”

“I thought I couldn’t get lower than the moment I walked out of my mother-in-law’s room. At that moment, I knew how Mark Twain felt when he had read his obituary in the newspaper.”

“‘No,'” I feigned a chuckle. Fighting a desire to be invisible, I weakly continued, ‘Still here and kicking.'”

“‘You retired, then?'”

“‘Some wish I was, but no. I’m still having too much fun and still have too much to do.'”

“Then, the elevator suddenly started glowing. ‘I’m glad to hear that. You were my teacher a long while back. I won’t tell how far back. You won’t remember me.'”

“I asked her for her name. She told me. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.'”

“‘Well, it’s been a while. I told you that you wouldn’t remember me, but I haven’t forgotten you. I can tell you now, as I have been telling my children, especially Latasha here, that was some class. It was more than a class; it was an experience, a life-saving experience. The only one that had real lasting meaning for me. It had affected everything I did in all my other classes and my whole life. I heard from Latasha it was as much for her. She’d come back from each class all excited and tell me what you all had been doing. I was jealous because we hadn’t done a lot of what you’re doing now. Sometimes she’d get down on you because you were in her face and wouldn’t let her get away with doing less than she was capable of doing. She’d complain that you were always pushing her to do more than she thought of herself. I’d tell her, “Listen to him, girl. He did the same for me.”‘”

“‘What did I do?’ I asked as I began to perk up.”

“‘Let’s just say, the class was more than the history I learned or that first ever A I got. You got me to get in my face and got me to kick myself in my butt, and helped me start changing who I was by helping me to showing myself who I could become. You stuck to me and changed my world. You showed me what an education was truly all about. I’ve been doing that all these years ever since with myself, my children, my grandchildren, and each of my students: never accepting limits, always pushing out boundaries. I should have told you this long before now, but never got around to it. I’m glad I ran into you. I guess it’s the Lord doing His work.'”

“Feeling a sudden uplift that defied gravity, I humbly answered, ‘Maybe so. I’m truly glad we met. Thank you. You’ve given me something I truly needed.'”

“Just then, the elevator doors opened. We hugged and went our separate ways. The chill and sadness of that the hospital room was tempered by the warmth and joy in that elevator. As I walked to the car, I thought, ‘First Crystal. Now Caroline. Someone is giving me a message I haven’t been reading lately.’ And, I perked up.”

“Want to shoot for something?” I emphasized, “Shoot for a eulogy like that.”

Make it a good day.


One Blasted Sentence

Well, I went out real early this nippy morning breathing a warm sigh of relief as my beloved third seeded Tarheels escaped from Murray State in the first round of the NCAA roundball tournament. I left the house wearing my Carolina blue grubbies; I came home looking like the “golden child.” In fact, I was lucky not to have gotten lost and to have found my way back to the house. Ever hear of Arctic “white out?” Well, down here in South Georgia, at this time of the year, if you’re not careful, you’ll become a victim of “yellow out.” Mother Nature is play acting at being Gold Finger. She is gilding everything in sight. We have a golden fog that is as dense as London’s thickest. Jason doesn’t have to look very far for a golden fleece in these parts. All the plants have been mutated into streaked, golden variegations. I have my own “golden pond.” We can only see through gold colored glasses. Our streets are lined with gold. We all have golden voices. The sky is a plaid of golden vortices that trail the flapping wings of mosquitoes swooshing through the golden haze. You can see the towering clouds of pollen storms rolling across the countryside, tinting everything in their paths with their jaundiced hue and suffocating all that they come into contact with them. Pandemic outbreaks of South Georgia “yellow fever” with its symptoms of swollen red eyes, sinus headaches, raw throats, stuffy noses, runny noses, clogged lungs, hoarse voices, coughs, wheezes, sneezes, and runs on antihistamines and nasal sprays are the true heralds of our South Georgia Spring, not robins or exploding azalea bushes or blooming dogwoods.

In the midst of this plague, I had to concentrate on an assignment I had been given by a student that is due this coming Monday when we all return from Spring Break. I had to come up with one blasted sentence for him about what a good teacher should be doing. One sentence!! I think I would gladly take an “F” if I could. But, the penalty for missing the deadline will be far more severe than mere failing grade. It’ll be an empty wallet. I will have to supply donuts for his class during the remaining six weeks of the semester. Six weeks! That’s four dozen donuts at $24.13 a pop!!

That’s a lot of dough!!! With what was going on in my immediate family, I don’t knead that. Puns intended!

You ask how I got into this. My answer is simple: by blowing bubbles! Yeah. Blowing bubbles. Let me explain. Every now and then–lately more now than then–I sit somewhere on campus to get away from it all and regain my balance by blowing bubbles. The Friday afternoon before the week of Spring Break was one of those “nows.” The campus looked like an old western ghost town. The students had abandoned their dorms and had jammed the roads heading for the beaches. The only thing missing from the scene was tumbling tumbleweed and swirling dust devils.

I was by the fountain in front of the library. It was my luck that a first year student, whom I’ll call Jonathan, from one of the classes hadn’t left yet. He passed me and gave me a smiling “hi.” I winked back as I dipped the ring into my Mr. Bubbles bottle, whiffed a breath, and sent a large, shimmering, soapy globe slowly drifting into the air. He stopped, turned, impishly popped my bubble (in more ways than one), came over, and sat down. He reached over and gestured that he wanted to share the soapy ring. I passed it to him. We dipped, whiffed, and played with the bubbles like we kids do when we blow bubbles. Anyway, as we chit-chatted about the therapeutic effects of blowing bubbles, he told me he was thinking of becoming a teacher and had been glancing at my website that archives all my “Random Thoughts.”

After about fifteen minutes of this gloriously relaxing kid stuff, he stood up with a “gotta go. My ride to Key Largo is waiting on me.” He hesitated. Looking down at me, without a warning, without the permission of a by-your-leave, he threw down the gauntlet. “I want a sentence from you, one sentence, telling me what a good teacher should always be doing. And, I want the answer by the time we come back from Spring Break.”

I looked up at him. “Leave me alone!” I shook my head and moaned. “I’ve got enough on my plate. Are you trying to ruin my down time while you’re playing it up down at the Keys?” I asked. “That’s not fair.”

“You just told me you’ll be working over Break on a computer seminar on teaching, passion, and burnout that you got to give in May. So you’ll be thinking about it. By the end of Spring Break. We’ll swap out assignments. My community will show our project film and you’ll hand your sentence into me.”

“You’re going to show your film anyway whether I give you your sentence or not,” I said, flexing my professorial authority. Then, I made the mistake to ask, “And, if I don’t give you your one sentence?”

He swept aside my mock defiance with a smile, “Like you always tell us, there are consequences to our choices.” Then, he rattled off the consequences like a pistol firing on automatic: Donuts. Four dozen donuts for the class. Assorted. Fresh. Dixie Creams. Once each week. For the rest of the semester.”

I quickly added up the cost. “You’ve got to be kidding! That’s a hundred and fifty dollars worth!”

“Each week.”

“You know I’ve got the power of the grade over you?” I reminded him in an impish tone as I tried to checkmate his demand.

Unfazed, he fired another automatic burst: “You heard the rules. One sentence! Only one sentence! Monday! When we get back! Or else! Remember the Chair!! Have a great break.” With that, he walked off with what seemed like a gleeful “gotcha” trot.

So, for the past week, as I’ve been working in my flower garden, putting in a sprinkler system, furiously putting together the powerpoint aspect of that “webinar,” feverishly working on my synagogue’s fund-raising corn beef sandwich sale, being there for my very, very sad and emotionally drained Susan as she daily tended to her mother whom we had placed in a depressing nursing home–there’s the ultimate redundancy for you–and is now in the hospital with a second bout of pneumonia, and thinking about that one sentence answer to Jonathan’s “What should a good teacher always be doing?”

But, “ha,” I’m going to make my deadline. My garden gave me the answer. So, here’s my one, albeit long (I remembered “The Chair), sentence answer:

Just earning his or her eulogy by enlarging his or her life through selflessness giving, by doing what matters for each student, by doing meaningful work in the service of each student, by using the classroom’s lessons as preparation for life’s lessons, by making a difference in each student’s life, and by living a life that encourages each student to strive to become the person he or she is capable of becoming.

But, while I’m on a role, I will give Jonathan four additional sentences. Maybe I can get some “extra credit:”

1. A teacher should always be about his or her students, giving every ounce, every heartfelt effort in every moment to each of them.”

2. The highest benefit for a teacher is not what recognition he or she receives in whatever form; it is what he or she becomes because of his or her efforts to serve and give, because you cannot hold up a torch to light another person’s way without brightening your own path.

3. A teacher’s classroom lessons serve no true purpose if they don’t prepare each student to deal with life’s lessons.

4. Of a teacher each student should be able to say that he or she: was taught, was mentored, and was loved.

Remembering Jonathan’s departing “gotcha” grin, I don’t know if he is going to be disappointed that he won’t get a continuous supply of tummy food for the rest of the semester or delighted he’s going to get a continuous supply of soul food for the rest of his life.

It was a good assignment for me.

Make it a good day.


A Chance Meeting

I was walking down the sterile, colorless, and depressing hall in the hospital towards the room in which my 84 year old mother-in-law was slowly recovering from severe flu induced pneumonia. For a few seconds, however, tears of joy were filling my eyes. I wiped away the one or two that overflowed my lids and were running down my cheek. I pushed the door open and went in to share with Susan what had just happened.

I had been leaning on the counter at the nurse’s, station kidding around with my mother-in-law’s floor nurse, Libby, to get my mind off what was going on in Room 516 and to recharge my depleted battery. A floor nurse from another wing came up close to me. I turned my head towards her. She looked straight at me with a delightful, almost impish, smile. She had a twinkle in her eye as if she was about to spring a trap. And, she did. “Still using triads and journals to help students learn about life and history?” I looked at her stunned. Knowing she had gotten the better of me, she asked, “Do you remember me?”

“No,” I answered as I started an intense gaze at her, “but doggone if you don’t you looked familiar. I think I’m supposed to know you.”

She introduced herself. Her name didn’t ring a bell. She reminded me that she had been a non-traditional student in our class twelve years ago when I was beginning to apply in the classroom the life lessons I was learning from the inner journey set off by my epiphany.

“My god,” I quietly said. “that’s been a while back.” I still didn’t specifically remember who she was. She was making me feel old. Then, suddenly, a long lost memory jumped into my head and I felt a wave of youthful exuberance sweep over me. I remembered her journal entries as if I had just read them a few minutes ago in which she had poured out her heart. Now it was my turn to broadside her. “I remember you now. You wrote about…..We used to talk about…..”

“Yes!” she was no less surprised than was I. “After all these years you remember. Isn’t that something….I struggled with a line or two at first as if I didn’t want to read what I had to write, and then I started pouring out my heart. It was as if I couldn’t stop. I had to get a lot out about…….”

“That was the first quarter I tried student journaling. It was on a voluntary basis in those days. Yours was one of those that convinced me to keep using them and make them a requirement so I could get to know each student…..You know, for whatever reason, I kept most of the journals from those early years. They’re hidden away in two file cabinets. Since they weren’t cluttering up the floor in my office, I’ve left them sitting there doing nothing all these years. Every now and then I thought of chucking them, but something always stopped me. I figured they weren’t doing any harm. So, I left them alone. I still may have yours stuffed away there….. I’ll check to see if I still have yours and I’ll send it to you…..”

“That was some class. “That was some class. The triads, group open quizzes, discussions, the projects, and especially you and climate you created for each student to grow…..It took all the hesitation and doubt about myself out of me….It helped me see I was not too stupid to become a nurse as I had been told by…..You helped me find the answers to my questions about what I was doing there…..It was a defining experience. And, as time passed, I realized more and more that you were the defining teacher to me…..You’ve been with me ever since, inspiring and motivating me to know there isn’t anything I can’t do….I’m thinking about going back to school soon to get more education so maybe I can teach and prepare future nurses….It’s all about touching people, isn’t it….you helped and touched me and now I help and touch others….I’m a good nurse because of what you helped me teach myself….. I glad I happened to be on this floor at this moment and had a chance to tell you this….Go figure. I guess sometimes you just don’t ask about such things.”

We chit-chatted for a few minutes as she told me about herself and I told her about myself and how the class has been evolving. Then, she hugged me and whispered a soft, “I never thanked you. Now’s the time. ‘Thank you.’ Keep doing what you’re doing.”

Thinking I had just passed what my good friend, Don Fraser, calls “the five year test,” I returned the hug. “In those days, when I was wondering, you helped me know that I was not wasting my time. You’re one of those who convinced me to keep at it. And, now you’re doing it again. It’s my turn to thank you.”

Have you ever been so happy that you cried? Remember the sheer happiness that swelled up inside your body. Is there anything more powerful? More reassuring? More affirming? More inspiring? More motivating? I’m sure most of you don’t have to imagine it. I’m sure all of you have had the chance to feel that way. If you have, you know what I mean when I say in those moments, in that place, I felt: happy, humble, and blessed. I still do.

Make it a good day.