Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 30 Jun 2001 09:47:37 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: Teaching is so "Iffy"

That STLHE conference really left an impression on me as few conferences do. You know what that conference was all about? Not technology; not technique; not methods. Not really. It was about a blasted innocuous and powerful two-lettered word we all so often use: IF.

This tiny two letter word is a verbal Janus, watershed word, a fulcrum word, an option word, a fork in the road word, a crossroads word, an either/or word, a reflection words, a moment of truth word, a questioning word, a "the moment" word, a just imagine word, an opportunity word, a decision word, a challenge word, a consequence word, a question word, a which-of-your-halves-do-you-listen-to word. It can be a light word reflecting curiosity and investigation that lifts and paves the road. It can be a heavy word of doubt and skepticism and hesitation that deflates and barricades the way. This huge little word is the choice word of choice and decision. And, it is our choice how each of us chooses to use it. Isn't that what so much, if not all of our teaching, is all about: choice?

And, as I face an adventurous "if" triggered by Russ Hunt in his presentation, that is what the conference brought to home: part of the woof and warp of teaching is that it is always so "iffy."

We academics just love to talk about academic freedom. As Canada Day and July 4th approach, I will tell you this about what I have found is real academic freedom: the greatest freedom each of us has, upon which all other freedoms rest, without which all other freedoms cannot be, is choice. No, I am not just talking about the choice of what to say or what to do. They are very important. I am talking about something deeper: the choice of what to feel, to follow your better half. That is critical. Choice of feeling is the spring well of our attitude, and attitude is the root of our actions. It took me a long time to discover that **IF** I choose to fire my soul, impossibilities vanish, barriers come tumbling down, ways are found, waves of joys sweep over and innundate troubles, exciting opportunities appear, and I have to work hard to feel physicallEy tired and emotionally drained. On the other hand, **IF** I choose to douse the fire in my soul or dampen the kindling, impossibilities abound, obstacles arise, exhaustion appears, the tank runs dry, and I am trapped and troubled. All of which impacts the "what" and "how" of the classroom.

So, once again, I have come to know this to be the tough and demanding truth: I choose for me. No one else does. My "ifs" are mine. Who I am or seek to become must be independent of--and at times in spite of--the opinion and actions of others. Otherwise, I surrender who I am and these days celebrating freedom are empty. The only voice I ultimately must hear is my inner voice. The only one who makes me angry, sad, or happy is me. The only one who gives me a sense of success or failure is me. It's my responsibility.

I think I am talking about playing good poker. It's not just the hand I'm dealt; it's how I choose to play it. It's not what I experience; it's what I choose to do with that experience. It's not the circumstance; it's how I choose to respond to those circumstances. I can trudge around with a "why-are-they-doing-this-to-me?" or I can walk upright with a "they-can't-take-this-away-from-me." I can hug my negatives or I can shun them. I can focus on my worst moments or I can notice my finest. I can remember failure or celebrate achievement. I can starve my spirit or nourish it. I can focus on those things I cannot control instead of focusing on me which I can control. I can feel smaller than my circumstance and be resigned that "it makes no difference" or I can be larger and be determined to make a difference. I can float with the current and wind up weaker in the lowest spot or I can swim against it and wind up stronger where I want or should be. I can soar or be grounded. I can feel like a powerless victim or I can be a strong overcomer. I can look over my shoulder or look ahead. I can discharge my responsibility or I can avoid it and play it safe. I can choose the "risks" of freedom or the "risks" of caution. I can hold on to my limitations or I can reach out for new horizons. I can hit a wall and stand frozen in hits shadow or I can bust through and walk warm, open, sunlit paths. I can let things happen or I can make things happen. Yes, I can be, as John Walker says, either a fire fighter putting out my inner fire and feeling burnt out or a fire lighter igniting fires and feeling fired up.

You see, I can have a group of students in a class and moan that they are mostly joyless, uninteresting, academic sinners, who very occasionally, maybe by accident, do something right. I can surrender, throw up my hands, and accept defeat with a walk away attitude. Or, I can celebrate that they are joyful, interesting, though imperfect, saints who make a mistake or two, and know I am never really out of it and can make a run for it. Either way, I still have that same group of students in a class. So what choice do I have?

Well, if I choose to find the positive in virtually every student, every day, in every classroom, if I appreciate each moment as a miracle, if I choose to have hope, faith, belief, love in every student, every day will be a happy one of discovery, every day I will be having deep fun and will be seriously playing, every day will be filled with an anticipating, "what's going to happen next?" I will be excited and I will be happy. I will be blessed with joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and days overflowing with "wows." I will make every minute count so the students won't count the minutes. I can choose to focus on the beauty inside each student, even if that student doesn't or can't. I can choose to be a hopeless "hope-oholic." I can accept the identity of each person at that moment and find beauty in it. I can let each person feel that he or she fits in. I can tap that magnificance too often lying dormant within each of us. I can prefer to see so much life and beauty in a person that he or she is dazzling.

On the other hand, if I choose to find the awful, the negative, the disappointment, the ugly, the lifeless, the sadness, the discouragement, and days overflowing with "yuks" and "ughs, I will. If I am fearful; if I see each moment as a curse; if I see each class as something old hat, something routine, something "here we go again; something of a moaning "oh, not again." if I kvetch about student imperfections; if I do not have hope, belief, and faith I will lose my youthful spring, I will curse myself with boredom, depression, purposelessness, disappointment, discouragement all of which may evolve into an anger. I will get kicked around in the classroom rather that getting a kick out being in the classroom. The classroom will be stormy instead of sunlit. I won't give it all I have; I will give it just enough to get it over. In that place awaits despair and its handmaiden, gloom.

The choice is mine and mine alone.

Now, I can hear some of you loading up with an excusing "it's not that simple." So, what is? Make no mistake, ifs are complicated if for no other reason than each of us is complicated. First, we really don't know a lot of what we think we know. Our vast memory archives are not the same as the stuff that's in libraries. We let a lot of experience get away from us. A lot of knowledge gets lost and has to be rediscovered. Second, whether we possess a dearth of alternatives or an unmanageable number of options, when we choose what to do, we can do no better than the options of which we are aware. Third, we have to be "open," choose to be open, to become aware of and receptive to options and knowledge that may disturb our sense of certainty and challenge who we are, what we believe, and what we do currently as it widens our ranges of choices. Third, choosing is also complicated by the fact that the number and type of options, as well as the need to choose, are never static, the students are always changing, the circumstances are always in a state of flux. Fourth, choosing is further complicated by the reality that at some point the rubber has to hit the road, there must be a moment of choosing, a moment of decision, a moment when you take the step--or the plunge. Fifth, every day is an "again" requiring ongoing raising of ifs and almost innumerable moments of taking the step. And finally, most of all, that moment of decision, putting that IF into play, isn't made as an unemotional, detached, distant, disengaged, objective, highly rational view of the situation.

But, complexities aren't excuses or rationalization for "I have no choice but to...." You do. You may not want to make a choice or may not want to dare to make a choice, but that is your choice. The truth is that we have no choice other than to make choices: if, if, if; choices, choices, choices; decisions, decisions, decisions. It is, as the book title says, a never-ending story.

No, with all that said and done, how we face our ifs reveals who we are at that moment or our struggle to become. And, as Kipling says in the last stanza of his challenging poem, IF, the stanza that always leaves the deepest track on my soul:

                If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
                Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
                If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
                If all men count with you, but none too much,
                If you can fill the unforgiving minute
                With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
                Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it. 

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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