HOW WE CAN DO A BETTER JOB

     I’m putting on my “game face,” getting into the groove, going deep inside myself, pondering, reflecting, feeling, thinking, rethinking, picturing, rehearsing. I feel the gates of my adrenal glands are slowly opening. I always get this way before I present at a conference or do an on-campus workshop. In this case, I’m am getting mentally and emotionally ready for an all day pre-conference workshop on forging classroom community and a conference session with my good friend, Todd Zakrajsek, on “How Who We Are Impacts On How We Teach” at the Lilly Conference on collegiate teaching in very “brrrrrrrr” Oxford, Ohio, for which I leave tomorrow.

       One of “props” I’ll have at my fingertips for these presentations, if the occasion arises, is the result of an informal survey I had made over the past couple of weeks. After talking with my good friend, Don Fraser, I had walked the halls and randomly asked 89 students one question, “How can we professors do a better job of teaching?” In one way or another, all their answers fell into one of five revealing categories. The first, as one student put it, “Stop boring us. The second, as another student said, “Care about us as people.” The third, as still another student answered, “Tell us why we have to take a course; give it some importance to our lives.” The fourth, as even still another student put it, “Stop threatening us so that we’re afraid to do anything.” And finally, a student pleaded, “Stop controlling us like some dictator.”

      Interesting isn’t it. It should give us pause. If education is enveloped in an aura of excitement, caring, support, encouragement, fearlessness, relevance, and ownership, it is a dynamic process. It is newness. It is nurturing new attitudes, information, performance, and achievement. It’s an invitation to a new life. It’s the appearance of new possibility. It is a hint of a new self. It is growth. It is change. It is personal development. It is transformation. It is loss and acquisition. It is demolition and construction. It’s letting go of the familiar and venturing out into the unknown. It’s self-confrontation. It is unlearning. It’s “creative destruction.” All this makes getting an education challenging enough. But, students will have far more trouble and hesitation of picking up that gauntlet, of converting that challenge from barrier into opportunity, if education is pitted by the corrosive acids of deadening boredom, uninviting disconnection, uninteresting irrelevance, and arresting fear.

Louis

WHY WE EXIST

       Two students struggling. Two conversations. I’m struggling to help each of them motivate themselves, to see the motivating “why” of getting an education, to understand the relevant meaning and purpose of an education to their lives. I ask them, “Why are you here?” One tells me that the only reason he is at the University is, “To make money. I was told by everyone it’s the only way to get a high paying job.” The other looks at me incredulously and says, “I want to play on a championship team and get picked in the draft for a fat contract.”

       Those two replies took me back fifteen years to when I wrote a Random Thought I called “What Is It We Are Paid To Do?” Today, I’m still asking what is so high about our institutions of higher learning? Now, I don’t want to get into $1,500,000 to $6,000,000 contract buyouts for collegiate football coaches, or how institutions of higher learning have become educational Jabez Stones by selling their souls for incomes from both lucrative television contracts as well as from outside foundation, corporate, and government research grant money, or how academics and administrators fight over money generating patents for technologies and inventions created under institutional auspices. No, I just want to say that the way you hear most people talk, education is fused to the dollar sign. Parents, politicians, recruiters, professors, administrators, and students alike are making institutions of higher education more and more into white collar vocational job training centers, professional farm clubs, or, in the palatable parlance of jargon, “career centers.” Sure, in catering to that word “higher” we call such jobs “professions” or “careers,” but a job by any other name is still a job. It’s a wonder that over the entranceways of our campuses there aren’t eye-catching neon signs flashing in vivid colors that would be the envy of any Las Vegas casino proclaiming:

                                            JOBS….JOBS….JOBS….

                                      DEGREE….SALARY….SUCCESS

                                           JOBS….JOBS….JOBS….

                                      DEGREE….SALARY….STATUS.

      Now, there’s nothing wrong with that–as far as it goes. But, the meaning of getting a higher education in today’s world doesn’t go far or high enough. Higher education must have a higher meaning than merely getting a fatter paycheck. Sure, it is important that we teach and the student learn the subject material; sure, it’s important we teach and the student learn what we call certain critical thinking skills. But, for what purpose? Just to get a grade, satisfy a requirement of a major, receive a diploma, and make a living? We live in a three dimensional world, but our institutions of higher education too often live in a two dimensional one of developing intelligence and getting a job. Where’s the third dimension, the often ignored “human and social dimension?”

       I say that being intelligent and skilled is not enough. I asked, “Where are our educational Daniel Websters to do battle with our collegiate Mr. Scratches?” Without helping a student develop emotional skills and people skills, higher education doesn’t fulfill its entire mission, or what is professed to be its entire mission as written in the myriad of poetic institutional mission statements. What makes higher education “higher” is more than being a third state of job training or a third level of vocational schooling. A baccalaureate education’s focus is supposed to be broader than that; it supposedly has a character focus on learning how to live rather than just the technical consideration of how to make a living, on developing emotional and social skills as well as vocational and intellectual skills, on developing communication and cooperative skills, on helping each student open herself and himself to herself, himself, and to others. Let me paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt: to educate a person in the mind but not the morals, is to train a menace to society. Ain’t that the truth. I’ll put it my way: the heart must control what the mind creates. We see all around us the grim result of character flabbiness: staggering greed, unprincipled selfishness, and gross irresponsibility that has brought us to the economic carnage around us. Many of us academics are part of the problem in that so many of us too often are concerned only with graduating more informed and more intellectually skilled people, but not necessarily better persons. Too many of us scholars live and work inside a large, opaque academic cocoon, strengthening our old habits and telling each other things we already agree with. The result is that too often we have given diplomas, honors, and recognition to highly intelligent and skilled people who have proven to be moral drop-outs.

       Now, we can be part of the long range solution if we are purposefully and consciously concerned with helping each student learn how to live the good life as well as how to earn a good living; if we help a student tone up her or his value system with an ethical fitness program of self-discipline, self-confidence, self-worth, integrity, self-respect, respect for others, honesty, commitment, perseverance, responsibility, pursuit of excellence, emotional courage, creativity, imagination, humility, kindness, trustworthiness, fairness, authenticity, caring, compassion for others and citizenship.

       So, why do we exist? What is the purpose of higher education? Think I live in opaque, dreamy clouds? Well, stop smirking. Listen to Warren Buffet. He certainly has his feet on the ground. He told us: “In looking for people to hire, look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. But if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” There are the three dimensions of higher education. Our mission must be to educate both the mind and heart, to develop both skills and ethics, to cultivate good professionals who are good people. Our purpose must be to help each student grow in her or his intellect and character, to help each of them to learn how both to do things right and to do the right things, to help each learn what is necessary for both a productive livelihood and a productive life.

Louis

MY TEACHING METHODS

     It was a sharp low-fifties out there this early or late morning. I’m not sure which. I hate this time change. Anyway, as I cut through the crisp air, several things started to come together. I felt myself getting in the groove for a day-long workshop on creating a motivating classroom and a major presentation I’m making with my good friend Todd Zakrajek on how who we are impacts on how we teach, both at the Lilly conference on collegiate teaching at Miami University to be held in a couple of weeks. I was tying that mulling in with some thoughts about sections of Gregory Berns’ new book on brain research dealing with how those tiny neurons have more than a tiny impact on why and how we perceive, think, feel, and act. I was also thinking about some student journals I recently had read that revealed how one of their professors in another department sees things through the eyes of a pathological self-proclaimed “weed ‘outer'” rather than through the lens of a therapeutic nurturer. And finally, there was a message last night from a professor at a northeastern university. Embedded in her message was a question about fundamentals that I have been mulling over the last couple of weeks in preparation for Lilly. She asked me, “Dr. Schmier, could you tell me what is your most important pedagogical tool?”

     “That’s it!” I exclaimed to myself in a eureka moment on the back leg of my power walk. I rushed into the house, grabbed a cup of steaming coffee, and answered her question. “You want to know what my most important teaching tool is? Well, it’s me. The truism, founded on research findings, that a student doesn’t care what you know until she or he first knows you care about her or him is true. My teaching is done by and with conscious intention. An ‘I intend to’ transforms an ‘I’ll try’ or a ‘I hope I can’ from a hesitancy into an unhesitant purposefulness; doubtful becomes an influential doubtless; challenges change from impassable obstacles to scalable opportunities. I have found that I cannot escape the power of my intentions. After all, it’s our intentions that set our priorities, marshal our resolve, and lays in our course of action. And, where I am and who I am and where I am heading are the result of the clear, positive, and empowering priorities and resolve nourished by my vision. And, then, I put them to work for each student. My intentions are rooted in two fundamental outlooks on life in general and on each student in particular. First, when I beat cancer four years a go, when I survived a cerebral hemorrahage last year, I consciously decided that surviving was not enough for me. I decided I was going to thrive as well. I decided I was going to unwrap the present of every minute of the present and make each day a new and shining one. Second, I am a people person. I believe I am first and foremost in the people business. And, I am enthralled by students. I go on campus determined to improve and honor the lives of ordinary students as anything but ordinary. That is the inseparable linkage between my philosophy of life, my celebration of each student, my vision of my mission, and my teaching methods. I teach each student with conscious and intended unconditional, unlimited, and unending love, faith, hope, belief, kindness, awareness, newness, challenge, commitment, dedication, perseverance, otherness, and empathy. My vision is to be the person who is there to help them help themselves become who and what each is capable of becoming.”

     I went on to tell this professor that for me there are what I call seven key “soulsets” or “heartsets,” seven sets set in concrete that set up who I am as an educator, seven powerful determinates of my perception of, as well as my attitude and behavior toward students, seven elements of my vision, seven tightly held presumptions that guide whatever it is I do in and out of class. First, and foremost, for me the classroom is like my garden. There is nothing that is ever ugly in it. If it is capable of blooming, it stays. Likewise, I believe that, without exception, there is good, ability, and potential in every student. And, that is worth believing. In the extraordinary, often besieged, more often confused, still more often overwhelmed, very real, complicated human parade that walks the halls and marches into the classroom, playing and working, sociable and solitary, trusting and suspicious, loyal and betrayed, outgoing and shy, laughing and raging, focused and distracted, disciplined and happy-go-lucky, joyous and sad, giggling and gasping, charming and maddening, smiling and frowning, healthy and sickly, yearning for love, and asking for nurturing, thrown about by the ebb and flow, the swells and eddies and logjams of the many currents of life, I’ve never known a student who wasn’t worth the trouble and effort required to make her or his life whatever it could possibly be. While I may not love what a student does, I’ll not stop loving her or him. I have never found that a student is a headache as long as I keep loving, having faith in, believing in, and having hope for that student, and if I am helping her or him help herself or himself to become the person she or he is capable of becoming. So, my head never aches when I am supporting, encouraging, or comforting a student. Second, I know I must know and believe that I have the therapeutic power to be that inspiring or charismatic or nurturing person in a student’s life. Third, I know that a student’s sense of belonging, security, and self-confidence in a classroom provides the scaffolding for deep learning beyond grade getting. Fourth, I believe every student comes on campus with a desire to learn though she or he may not know all there is to know about how to do it. Fifth, I believe that students will be more responsive and motivated to learn when I first create a safe, trusting, and secure environment in which all students feel comfortable, valued, and noticed. Sixth, the classroom is a shop of “serious novelties” and adventurous “let’s see what happens” experiments that tap into students’ unused strengths. To keep myself and students fresh, sharp, on our toes, the classroom, as recent brain researched has revealed, has to be washed each day with breezes of crisp, fresh air; that is, we must never get into a predictable, old-hat, stagnating, repetitive, and mind-numbing “ho-hum” routine. “Newness,” new ways of looking at, thinking about, and using both the material and ourselves must be the rule of each day. And finally, I accept that most students are not adults; that no student is perfect; that good people will occasionally lapse; that things do not always go the way I want or expect; that nothing is quick and easy; and, that nothing works 100% all the time, everywhere, with everyone.

      “Yeah,” I ended my answer, “there is both an ‘I’ and ‘We’ in teaching and learning. I, like you, am my most important and powerful teaching tool.”

Make it a good day.

Louis