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.