Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 10/19/2003 9:39 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part I

These cool, level streets in Valdosta are a a piece of cake! They're a far cry from playing at being a Yeti walking the impossible near-ninety degree inclines of the San Mateo streets. I can focus more on my thoughts and get deeper into my heart here in the flatlands of Valdosta than I could on the San Mateo himalayan slopes where I was wondering if my heart would give out. And if the near San Mateo inclines didn't get me, our grandbaby did. For three days, Susan and I spoiled her big time. Nevertheless, like the San Mateo Himalayan slopes and teaching, spoiling Natalie takes work. At eighteen months, she has more energy than a split atom. And, we learned why having babies is for the young.

Anyway, whether on the west coast or the east coast, I've been more than usually pensive the past two weeks or so for about three reasons. There were the High Holidays when we of the Jewish faith get reflective as we take an inner journey to improve our lives. I had read intently Steven Sample's small but powerful THE CONTRARIAN'S GUIDE TO LEADERSHIP on the plane out to San Mateo, read it more intensely on the way back from San Mateo, and dug into it for a third time this past week. I'll probably read it a fourth time in the coming week. And then, last week I had finished putting together and submitting my post-tenure review portfolio. I have to admit that I initially felt that at my age and stage of my profession it was hard for me to take this post-tenure review stuff seriously. Not thinking much of the formal departmental statistical student evaluations, for the portfolio I had decided to include the 170 or so free hand first impressions the students had of me and the class after a week of classroom community building. I also enclosed about 170 mid-term free hand evaluations by the students of me, the climate and culture of the class, and how the class was operating. This week, with an undercurrent of the spiritual impact the High Holidays is still having on me, with a backbeat of Sample's concepts and words that had initially touched some sensitive chords chiming louder, and fact that I am extraordinarily serious about students evaluations, I started closely reading and intensely listening to the student evaluations.

To my surprise, I found that what I originally did not have my heart in was getting into my heart. Phrases, sentences, and paraphrase from the student evaluations began to dance in front of me like sugar plum fairies. They were like affirming examples of Sample's words. These evaluations and Sample's words seemed to join in partnership to form categories that virtually aligned with my sense of purpose, vision, and mission:

Category 1: An education is not a mere transmission and stuffing in of information. It is not merely the development of a skill. It is not merely the preparation for a job. Were an education to be only this, it wouldn't be worth much and would be a waste of time. And education must be about a change. It must get into a person and become part of him or her. It must be a way of growth. It must become a way of living. It must be transforming.

"He's more than a history teacher; he is a life teacher."

"I've noticed that you try helping each student be somebody to somebody."

"This class is hard b/c I have to look face to face at some of the life-long skills I have avoided my entire life....the odd part is that I kinda like it and feel a sort of relief. I don't have to keep my shoulder to the door to prevent it from opening and letting others in."

Category 2: Teaching must have, in the words of Sample, a strategic plan. I interpret that to mean: meaning, mindset, method, manner. Teaching must follow a progression of purpose, vision, mission, and character. That is, it must be about a consciously reflected upon purpose, the "why" in my being, in my heart and my soul; it must be about an articulated vision, the dreams and possibilities in my mind's eye; it must be about mission, what I am doing to fulfill the vision that is anchored in my purpose; and it must be about character, our internal priorities, about admirable and positive qualities, about valuing values.

"In the rest of my classes, I ask myself, if I am ever going to use the material I learn in class, but in your class I don't ever have to worry about that....somewhere down the line you figured you needed to do some soul searching and help us to do some soul searching and that it has to continue until you stop breathing."

"I finally see what you mean when you say that there is a reason for your apparent madness. I think you think about everything that you and we do in class. It seems to be laid out precisely and yet with a flexibility. It's like you yourself are always remembering 'The Chair.'"

"I thought those "getting to know ya" and "how it works" exercises were crazy. I saw no reason for the 'Words of the Day' or playing the music at the beginning of class or late and negative fees. Now I see their meaning and how they play out everyday in everything we and you do."

Category 3: There was the category that said thinking free and independent, being different, in the words of Sample, being a contrarian, is the most important character that a teacher can model and can develop in a student:

"This class gives us the freedom to be creative and the chance to express ourselves."

"His teaching is very original and unorthodox and he lets us be original and unorthodox. Heck he forces us outside our comfort zone and be seen."

"I've never seen him in a comfort zone. It's almost as if he's most comfortable when he isn't."

"This class has inspired me to be different. And I have learned to my surprise when I accept being different and allowed to be different, I can be free to use my imagination and be creative while better understanding and learning the material."

Category 4: Teaching must involve a combination of the arts of what I'll call the "art of artful listening" and "artful procrastination" on the part of both the student and the teacher. It's that "thinking gray" of which Sample talks:

"You never make snap judgements about us and you don't let anyone else's judgement influence yours. I've noticed that you just take it all in, each of us, always hearing and always looking, always talking with each of us, like a baseball coach at practice after practice after practice before creating the lineup just before gametime."

"You have such patience because you see each class as part of a long chain of process and each of us as a work in progress and you know you don't have to decide anything until it's all over at the end of the semester. I think that is why you don't grade anything until the final grade. You want us to look at ourselves the same way."

4. The final category says that character matters, moral and ethical formation matters, no less than information and skills. The teacher must become a symbol of himself or herself and be the embodiment of his or her values, morals, ethics, character. He or she must be a "do as I do" person.

"You model your Words for the Day to us. You aren't one of those sermonizing 'do as I say, not as I do" people. You are a 'do as I do' person. I nearly cried as you nearly did when you pleaded with us about drinking and your fear you wouldn't see one of us on Monday. You really give a damn about each of us."

"He's taught me to be free to be different. He's taken me outside the box and has kept me there--every day--just like he does with himself!"

"You are what we get. You don't try to wear masks and demand that we don't either."

And then there was the comment, "What are you thinking and feeling when you come into a class or talk to one of us outside of class? Behind your ever present smile you seem to see and listen so intently serious. I want you to give me your answer so it can help me when I become a teacher." Wow. What a question--from a first semester student. What am I thinking? In pondering my answers to that question, I have been coming to some realizations.

Enough for now. Going out to my garden and then watching some football. To be continued tomorrow morning.....

         Make it a good day.


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

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