Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue 11/25/2003 4:05 AM
Random Thought: The "E" In Teaching

It's an early crystal clear Sunday morning. Sun is still asleep. There's a heavy chill in the air. Just did my five miles. Coffee's not yet out. So, while I'm waiting, I've leaned against a cold iron handrail while sitting on the chilly concrete entrance steps to the Marcum conference center jotting down whatever is about to flow out. I'll probably share this on the internet Monday or Tuesday when I get back to Valdosta.

While I was on the oval track, walking in my winter grubbies for the first time this year, I was thinking and feeling that this Lilly conference on collegiate teaching has been especially an "E" conference. It has been "e"xhausting. My brain is numb and I am physically tired. Sleep is not really an option around here. It has also been "e"xhilarating. My spirit is soaring. Like my friend Joe Loweman, I came Wednesday evening to this gathering of learners on the campus of Miami University reluctantly and in my head. About noon today, I'll leave reluctantly and be totally and deeply in my heart. That always happens. The people do that to me. That is the way it should be. Lilly is more of an experience or a retreat if you let it be than it is a stuffy professional conference. Yet this year I got deeper and my spirit soared higher than usual. It probably began with with the uplifting people at my Thursday pre-conference workshop; the probably continued that night with the wake for the loss of a good colleague and friend;it probably was the hugging and greeting and schmoozing with old friends and colleagues on Wednesday, some of whom had had a hard year; it probably was the more than usual schmoozing with new-made friends and colleagues; it may have been the deeper than usual learning and reflection at more than a few of the sessions; it certainly was the stirring people in my three hour workshop on Saturday who took me off into an "e"xhilarating emotional and spiritual realm I had not planned on; and it probably was a marvelous and honest young woman (she'll love me for that), Regina Barreca, with whom I hope I'm starting a friendship.

In this electronic age, everything is "E-" something or other. Not being a contrarian or iconoclast, I think we all should jump on the "E" wagon--but on a different "E" wagon in a different parade. I'm not about to talk about electronic teaching or learning. No, for me the "E" in teaching means something basic. It means something that closes the distance and humanizes the electronics. I'm talking about "E"nthusiastic teaching, "E"xcited teaching, "E"nergetic teaching and, above all, "E"ffort teaching, all of which incessantly keep the fires burning and prevents "E"xtinguishing burnout.

Now what I am about to say may shock you. I truly believe we teachers must be show offs. I'm not talking about the rude, disrespectful, arrogant, self-righteous, or sarcastic caustic type of show off. Let me repeat that: I am not talking about the rude, disrespectful, arrogant, self-righteous, or sarcastic caustic type of show off. At this conference I saw one heck of a show off in the mould of what I am talking about: Regina Barreca. She "talked" to us about humor, teaching and learning, feminist theory. Those who didn't understand what she was doing called her presentation "just a stand-up comedy routine" that had nothing to do with teaching. It had everything to do with teaching. She didn't just stand up there and there was nothing routine about it. She just didn't drone on in humorless lecture fashion that humor can take the edge off touchy issues; she modeled it. No one was on edge about what is an ordinarily edgy subject; we were falling off the edge of our seats. She didn't blandly say that we can't merely practice what I call "safe teaching." She whipped the condom off of that room--and no one even noticed it. She didn't show us exciting as watching paint dry "studies have shown" slides. She didn't read to us from power point slides as if we were all illiterates. She didn't bore us with self-promoting citations of authors to prove her position that enthusiasm in the form of humor can enhance learning. Whether it was a doubting or affirming shaking head, she grabbed us and she held us. Details of her presentation and reflection of it are still reverberating within me. The only risk we took engaging in this risky subject was losing bladder control from the incessant laughter; the only stress we felt was the pain in our laughing stomachs. As a Sicilian from Brooklyn, it was on fitting that she was a Mt. Etna lava flows of enthusiasm that inundated us. Among other things, Regina was saying that we should get excited, bounce all over the place, jump for joy, and dance. And, if we can burn brightly with authentic "e"nthusiasm anew each moment, each day, each week, each semester, there is no way in hell we can't light up--or burn out! In a demonstration par excellence, using humor, we saw that we can't closet ourselves and our energy. We can't be shy or fearful or guarded about showing our excitement. The demonstrative "E" in teaching in any form isn't buffoonish; it's serious stuff. It's not distracting from the subject; it's on the mark. It's not impovishing; it's enriching. It's not amateurish; it's highly professional. It takes the intimidating and makes its intimate. And, it takes the risky out of the literal and metaphorical risque.

Never forget that the opposite of laughter and excitement and fun isn't work. Their opposite is debilitating, stagnating, dulling, distracting boredom!

We're living at a time when it's easier to show off our "e" in teaching. We shouldn't be embarrassed or shamed to show off our enthusiasm for each student. I believe in the kind of enthusiasm that gives me an open and transparent personality so that what's in my heart and soul radiates out. I let my enthusiasm be a motivational light, a purpose light. I give away my enthusiasm. Otherwise, anything I say would be shallow and hollow and certainly a damper. I let my actions talk my enthusiasm for each student.

Think about it. Do you know of anything great that was ever achieved without enthusiasm and excitement? As I asked some colleagues recently, have you ever known anyone with the blahs who has reached for the "ahas," ever gone to the stars, ever set sail on an adventure, ever discovered anything, ever built things? When you're not enthused, when you've got the "downs," it's pretty hard to get it up, to keep up your stamina and resolve. When you've got the blahs it's pretty hard not to have leadened feet and a heavy heart; it's pretty hard not feel vulnerable and discouraged; it's pretty hard not to feel stuck, to mope around, and to grumble in the shadows; it's pretty hard not to feel extinguished. To open this heart blockage and get the blood flowing again takes a strict regimen of daily doses of yearning, zeal, hope, and wonder. Yearning looks to break routine; zeal produces energy; hope creates an optimism; and wonder counters indifference. Taken together they are a natural angioplasty of enthusiasm.

Let me let you on in a secret. Yeah, Gina was a pistol. Yeah, she had a heck of a routine. Yeah, we were rolling in the aisles. But, she was not using humor to promote herself. She was using humor as her form of enthusiasm to help others help themselves become who they each are capable of becoming. And, that is serious stuff. Our worst enemies are not those whom we call enemies; our worst enemy is our lack of enthusiasm for what we do and for whom we do it; our worst enemy is our fears; our worst enemy is that we are not authentically happy at what we do.

If I was on Mount Sinai, one of the key commandments of teaching I'd inscribe in stone is: "Thou shalt be enthused about each student each day." That is, if you're going to teach, do it with all your heart. Be emotional. Be human. There no harm in it; there's only harm in denying and suppressing it. But, the "E" in teaching isn't just any ole energy; it's a special kind of energy. It has an inner warmth and feeling and vigor and freshness; it has an eagerness, a curiosity, and a giving. It's a doing what you love and love what you're doing and loving each person you're doing it with and for. The worst bankruptcy in the world is the teacher who has lost his or her enthusiasm for each student. I mean how do you light a fire if you're all wet? If you want the students to have a chance of being enthused about themselves and the subject, you first have to be enthused inside about yourself and each of them. Once enthusiasm for each student is truly within you, once it is strong and meaningful within you, it will begin to radiate out and touch each student like a powerful force working in your favor. And while it doesn't cost anything to have it, it's absence is a heavy price to pay. No, a teacher with the blah can't raise a student's aspirations for what he or she can become and to release his or her energies so he or she will get there. On the other hand, if teachers and students are enthused about each other, not just the subject matter, it's amazing what they can accomplish. I see that every day.

Now, I admit that I know Regina only for a day or so even if we talked, laughed, kibbutzed, drank, and danced. I found her to be a kindred spirit of many with whom I've associated these past few days, "newbies" and old timers alike, who keep or aspire to keep the fire burning without getting burnt out. I will bet she, as do others, have many miraculous moments with students, that they work hard to make those miracles happened, that they move their lap to where those miracles are falling. I will bet my bottom dollar that she, as do I and others, lives the lived life, chooses to inhabit her days, allows living to open her up, looses her heart until it becomes a soaring wing or a blazing torch or a never broken promise. I will swear that she would understand a line from Dawna Markova: "that which came to me as seed goes to the next as blossom and that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit."

I came away form Lilly a bit more the blossom and a bit less the seed. I was reminded over and over again that working at teaching isn't enough. You've got to capitalize and capitalize on the "E" in teaching. You can't listen to colleagues' moans about monotony or detail or preparation. You can't listen to colleagues' groans about teaching loads or fatigue. You can't be stymied by fears. Any time you work at something you run into that grungy stuff. I've seldom heard such moans and groans when it comes to scholarly research and publication. You just have to learn to get excited about it all. If I am excited about my supposedly "miserable job," it isn't miserable any more, and I roll up my sleeves willingly ready to do the down and dirty stuff. There is real uplifting magic in that "E" in teaching. Enthusiasm spells the difference between mediocrity and accomplishment. I've learned that you've got to enthusiasticly work at being enthused. If you're not enthused you won't really work at it. It'll just be plain ole drudgery work and you won't get it, and you won't wait to get out of it.

Now, enthusiasm is not something to be found. It is not something to be acted out. It's not a technique, method, or pedagogy (I still hate that jargon word). You cannot find your enthusiasm by searching for some person, place, interest or activity outside of yourself. Rather, you express your enthusiasm within the context of your own life and the world in which you live. Certain things can ignite your enthusiasm and help you to more fully express it. Yet the enthusiasm itself exists within you and is always there, no matter what happens on the outside. Instead of going in search of your enthusiasm, put your enthusiasm into everything you do. Even the most mundane task can be spectacularly fulfilling when you approach it with enthusiasm. Rather than searching to find the right job, the right moment, the right place or circumstance, put your passion into whatever you have right now.

Enthusiasm is a choice and making that choice requires effort at times. Anyone who says you can only be enthusiastic when the sun shines has never danced in the rain. I have found that things turn out best for me when I make the best of the way things turn out. I experience true enthusiasm the moment I stopped looking for it and started living it. I realize that every day is a new day that comes with the freedom to choose. Every day is the day that is not like any other day. It is the day to live for all it's worth.

Every time I open my eyes in the morning I have two questions to ask. "What kind of attitude am I going to have today?" "What am I going to do today that will matter tomorrow?" Every time I throw back those covers I have the choice of being a moaning "why do I have to get out of bed" person and painfully slither to the floor, or I can be a cheering "I can't wait to get out of bed" person and jump out onto the floor. Every time my feet touch the ground I have a decision to be a stuck, pessimistic, negative, discouraged, why-should-I-be-involved type of person or a touch the ground running, positive, encouraged, look straight into the day, awaken to new wonder, face what's coming, what's the next challenge, meet it head on person. Every time I start getting dressed I can feel I'm putting on the same ole styles or I can feel as if I am in a new set of clothes. As I sit and sip my coffee, I can feel filled or impovished. I can allow the negative and disruptive outside world get to me or I can choose to fill the inner me with strength, with faith, with confidence, with love to my very core.

Every day is a day for me, and only for me, to choose the best or the worst, the happiest or saddest, the sunniest or cloudiest. If I don't take time for having healthy and positive thoughts, I'll eventually be making time for unhealthy and negative thoughts. I can choose to delight in the beauty around me and in people or I can choose to see the ugly. I can choose to see what is in front of me right now is magnificent or as insignificant.

I stay enthused because I am conscious that every moment I am doing something that matters. Every moment I am exerting my own bit of influence on the direction of life, on the direction in which my world is moving. Even when I'm doing nothing, it matters. For by doing nothing, I allow some of my greatest possibilities to pass by without ever being fulfilled. It will make a difference in the way my life proceeds, a difference for myself and for all those around me. What will the difference amount to? That depends on what I'm doing. I cannot escape the consequences that will surely come from this moment. Yet I can have a very influential say in what those consequences will be, by virtue of what I do with it.

We each were born to be immerse in the intensity of life. We each were designed to live life, not to hide from it. We each must let life get to us rather than let life get away from us. We have to let life move us rather than move out of the way of life. Every day we must choose to accept life rather than let it pass my. We each have to find every reason and seize every opportunity to savor the goodness of life as it comes, moment by moment and day by day rather than spit it out.

Enthusiasm is not a secret. Enthusiasm can't be denied me by anyone or anything; it is something that I can always choose to have. That's easy when things go well. When things get tough, I choose to be positive and innovative instead of becoming despondent. If we can do that, if we can have wings rather than leadened feet, that is the awesome and inspiring and moving and exciting wonder of the "E" in teaching. How can I help but be enthused today.

I know I sound like one of those cottage industry motivators or self-help gurus. But, that's how I stay enthused, that's how I keep the torch ablaze without burning out day after day after day. I fuel it with inextinguishable and inflamable and inciting enthusiasm for what I do and for each student.

         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,   \ /^\
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