EDUCATION’S SHIBBOLETH

A Buddhist story:  A person sees an ant in a rain barrel., “What are you doing in my rain barrel?” he screams.  “Yuk! You’re ruining the water.  Get out!”  Another person comes by, sees the ant, and says, “It’s a hot day, even for ants. You aren’t hurting anything. Go ahead, stay there.”  The third person comes by, sees the ant in the rain barrel, rushes inside the house, and comes out with a handful of sugar to feed it. The first person is arrogant and selfish, the second is tolerant, the third is respectful and loving.

I’ll get straight to the point.  My rule of thumb is simple:  people first, the other stuff like information and technology and pedagogy second, third, fourth, and….  My first principle of teaching, then, as I told someone decades ago, and as I titled the third volume of collected Random Thought, is love, unconditional love.  For some reason so many academics are so afraid of saying it that they can’t say, that word:  love.  Or, they sugar coat it with words like “compassion,” “caring” or “positivity” or “warmth” or “concern” or “resonance” or “community” or “relationship.”  But, when you look under the hood, the engine is powered by love.  Education is not merely the recitation or transmission of information; it’s not only the use of some new-fangled technology; it’s not just method.  It’s not just jamming stuff down students’ throats and asking them to regurgitate it.  Education is about teaching life.  It’s about learning to be wise; that is, learning how to apply the information in a virtuous way.  We’re forgetting that we’re all human beings.  Education, is about becoming good human beings, about learning to live the good life, not just figuring how to make a good living; it’s about learning that living and loving are distinguished only by a vowel.

Love is education’s shibboleth. Why do so many academic pooh-ha love?  Why do they poor-mouth is as hippy-ish, new-agey, soft, airy, touchy-feely.  Is it because they can’t say the word? Academia’s general flippant and suspicious attitudes toward displays of emotion has created too many detached, apathetic, and even cruel “not giving a damn” academics.  I’ve never heard a keynote or plenary speaker talk of it at any of the many conferences on teaching I’ve attended.  You know, I used to ask myself  “Why aren’t the student’s better prepared?”  Such a lamentation was such a waste of my precious time.  Then, as part of my epiphany, I began to ask “How can I help them to make themselves better?”  To that there was and is only one answer:  love, unconditionally love.  When I said that to myself, that’s when I really began role up my sleeves.

Do you know your Carl Jung?  He said,  “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”     For students to grow and develop, for them to change and transform, for them to leave our campus as better persons than when they arrived, they must learn the need to care, respect, and love with whom they live, work, meet.  Love conveys the value of listening to the needs of students.  It impacts gestures, body language, facial expressions, and actions.  It includes.  It broadens awareness and otherness; it stirs aliveness; it heightens mindfulness. It allows you to seek to know and understand the wide variety of people in that classroom, and accept them.  You attend more closely and with greater sensitivity.  It sharpens your focus.  You seek to know and understand their individual stories, unique perspectives.  You seek to know their needs in order to connect with them.  Love and you change your heart and mind.  .

Love is education’s shibboleth.   It will reveal if you’re an educational Ephraimite.  Say it so you can cross the river!  Mean it!  Live it.  Keep it alive.  Fuel it to burn fiercely.  Everyday!  Don’t define or analyze it.  It’s an adjective, adverb, verb, and noun for education.  It’s not a weakness; it’s a strength.  Make it the answer to everything because, if for no other reason, it is.  It’s what I call a “little big word.”  It’s the cornerstone of belief, faith, and hope.  Without it, there’s no “tenderness,” “compassion,” “empathy,” “caring,” “positivity,” “resonance,” “warmth,” “concern,” “community,” or “connection.”  Without it, there’s only despair, brooding, tears, apathy, stagnation, resignation, anger, unhappiness.”  Love can only create; it can only nurture; it can never weed out; it can never destroy.  So, just love to love.  Unconditionally!   If you do, if you get there, I guarantee you’ll feel inspired, energized, fulfilled, and at peace as you never felt before.  Trust me, I know.  If you’re willing to work at loving, if you’re willing to work at it without demanding guarantees, love will work.

Don’t put it off.  Don’t wait for tomorrow.  The time to do it is now.  The time to love is now.  You can transform the classroom by the way you see it; you can change obstacles into opportunities, slothiness into incentive, aloneness into community, into meaning, anxiety into enthusiasm, indifference into making a difference, hesitation into persistence, blindness into insight, resignation into determination, sadness into joy, emptiness into fulfillment, vulnerability into strength.   Tell me, what and when are the things you do that make you feel most fully alive aren’t based on love?   Love makes each moment in the classroom precious, each student sacred.  You’ll find yourself “creating” and nurturing good students rather than counting them; you’ll persuade, influence and inspire rather impose and command; you’ll lead people rather than merely organize the presentation and testing of material; and, you’ll center on people rather than on information, process, and technology.

I’m thinking of Mary and Alice, and others before them over the years, and I know that love is education’s shibboleth.

Louis

TEACHING IS HARD THAN YOU THINK

So, as I said on a few days ago on Facebook, I and Susie drove past the announcement sign in front of the Arts building at VSU. There was the August 5th schedule for convocation. I gave out what I thought was a silent sigh as an unexpected wave of sadness swept over me.  It’ll be the first convocation I’ll miss in a large bunch of Sundays, marking the beginning of the first full year of my retirement.   I guess Susie saw my lips tighten slightly.  She leaned over.  A touch on my hand and a few soft words said all would be well. But, damn, I do miss the students, not the other crap, but the students. I learned and grew so much because of them.  That micro-moment got me to thinking again about Alice, Mary, and others, but this time my thoughts of them were joined by a recall of a statement a townsperson made to me the other day about how teachers get paid too much for something anyone can do.

Something anyone can do!  He is not an academic, but, even in academia most of us have this similar delusion that depreciates teaching to a lower priority than research and publication; that just because we have a scholarly resume or a Ph.D., just because we know the stuff in our discipline, we can, without any serious and meaningful training, do what the trained classroom teacher does.  Teaching, however, goes beyond merely transmitting content;  it goes beyond clickering or Blackboarding or PowerPointing or using the latest promoted, pushed upon us technology; it goes beyond writing up mini-papers called lectures; it goes beyond testing; it goes beyond grading; it goes beyond discussion; it goes beyond group work; it goes beyond credentialing; it goes beyond trading in stereotyping of and generalizing about students.

Teaching is akin to whitewater kayaking, not casual slow water canoeing.  Teaching is about relationships; it faces the challenges of connecting with another human being. It’s constantly knowing that each moment in that classroom is happening to you, to each of “them,” through you to each of “them,” and through each of “them” to you. Teaching is being up on the literature about how the brain processes information under the influence of memory, mood, emotion, relationships, and experience; it’s understanding all that, putting it to use, and then preparing for class and being in classroom with all this understanding in mind. It’s focusing on each student with a mindfulness–an alertness, aliveness, awareness, and otherness–that allows you to read individual body languages and facial expressions and vocal tones; it’s balancing between instilling belief in a person that he or she has unique potential while not taking lame excuses for work not done or shoddy work; it’s understanding why the students are quirky, the changes the young students are experiencing psychologically and physiologically; it is acknowledging and advocating the unique, not catering to the generality or stereotype and imposing conformity and uniformity; it’s understanding the psychology of later aged non-traditional students; it’s instilling a sense of purpose and meaning in a defiant or apathetic person; it’s adding to a person’s collective experience, not just increasing the collective knowledge; it’s holding a hand to hold or offering a shoulder to rest on or having a sympathetic ear to listen without being a pushover; it’s kicking butt and a “being in your face” without being disrespectful and insensitive; it’s being a role model of decency and respect for someone not yet there.  It’s knowing that each student is a sacred and noble human being who is a vital thread in the fabric of the universe.  It’s understanding that you have the burden of influencing the shape of things to come, that you are changing the world, and that you are altering the future.

Now, it’s easy to measure how good someone is at auto racing by their speed, placement in any given race, and number of victories; or, a basketball player by the number of baskets; or, a baseball player by hits, RBIs, and ERAs; or, an “attacker” in soccer by kicks on goal and goals scored.  But, teaching?  Do you think you can measure support and encouragement by a grade?  Think you can measure faith in, belief in by a GPA?  Think you can measure perseverance and commitment in an SOI?  Think you can measure love by a test score?  Think you can measure inspiration by a degree?  For me, the best measures of my teaching are the honks of passing car horns, waves of hands, and screams of “Dr. Schmier;” it’s those who came over to my table in the Student Union or stop me on campus to say hello and chat; it’s the Alices who come back or whom I meet years later or the Marys who talk with me the following semesters and tell me that I was a positive encouraging and supporting force in their lives, that I helped them, as one student put it, “transform their blank faces from dazed ‘I don’t really care’ stares to a thirst to learn smiles,” that I assisted them to reach higher, who thank me for believing in, having faith in, and loving them when they didn’t.

It’s okay to have an ability or talent; it’s good to believe in and find that ability and talent in others; it’s great to bring the ability or talent out from others; but, it’s phenomenal to be a life lifter as well.  To do that, as Marcel Proust might say, day after day and term after term, you have to go into the familiar academic terrain with new eyes and ears, with dogged persistence, with an upbeat backbeat, with extended and embracing arms, and with an unconditionally opened heart.  I know that the essence of teaching is to hear every day Albert Schweitzer whispering in your ear, “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown again into instant flame by an encounter with another human being.”   And, then, you have to go out and into the classroom, and live those words as someone had done with you.

I will submit that teaching, like life, without love of, without hope for, without belief and faith in, without living beyond your “what’s in it for me” concerns, without generous giving, without hospitable receiving into your midst is, as someone once said, doing just a meaningless ‘eh.’

Sure, there are lots of times, you have to make your own encouragement when a student doesn’t give you much encouragement; you have to create something to be positive about inside you when you can’t find anything to be positive about in front of you; you have to see, hear, and feel the positive possibilities when everything seems to be negative.  That is hard!  But, if you can find ways to do that with heartfelt sincerity, with what I call “truly enjoyment smiles,”each day will be a blessing; each day will provide reasons to celebrate.  And, I guarantee that once you feel it, you will also feel a moral obligation not to feel any other way.

No, teaching is not easy; it is not intuitive; it’s not a matter of scholarly resume or high degree; it’s not something that happens by chance; it’s not something that can be done “in your sleep;” it’s not something about which you can be casual.  There’s nothing simple, easy, relaxed, and quick about it.  It’s not something that automatically is instilled by either genes or longevity.  Like anything else, it takes vision and purpose to guide it; it takes diligence and constant attention to hone it.  You have to read the literature other than that in your discipline.  Educational researchers spend their professions and lives learning about learning.  You have to read, reflect on, and learn from what they have learned about learning.  Teaching is continual hard work; it demands a very high priority on time and effort; it takes constant unlearning; it takes never ending learning; it takes perennial training; it takes preparation; it takes reflection; it takes sustained practice; it takes adoption of new research findings; it takes adapting to the ever changing circumstance each day in each class.

Yeah, teaching is difficult; it’s complicated; it’s frustrating. Far more than most people think.  Yeah, there’s lots of negative stuff that can get you down; but there’s lots of potential and joy if you see beyond the barriers to opportunities that lie in each student.  Thinking of Mary, Alice, and others, teaching is fraught with miracle, beauty, wonder, and unlimited potential.  Thinking of Mary, and Alice before her, and others before them, teaching is uplifting.  And, if you lift someone’s life, you’ll feel yourself lifted off the ground as no research grant or publication or title or position can.

Louis