Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue 10/21/2003 2:25 AM
Random Thought: On Teaching, Part II

I'm back after a brisk walk in the brisk pre-dawn autumn air. So, what are my answers to Tina's question. What are the realizations I have been coming to over the last decade?

(1) First, my first obligation as a teacher is in serving the needs and interests of each student, not in serving my own ego, not in securing a job guarantee, not in advancing my own scholarly reputation within the academic guild.

Until eleven years ago, I didn't really truly think in terms of service to the student. I truly couldn't since I honestly didn't know or make an attempt to know whom the students I was supposed to be serving truly were. I got around this problem by claiming that I knew all about the students when they didn't know about themselves, that I knew what they wanted when they didn't, and that I knew what was good for them when they didn't know. I had made all these pronouncements without having asked them, engaged them, or listened to them. I had resorted to unfounded "in my humble opinion" and "I believe...." as proof of the validity of my positions. I got around this second problem of proclaiming that I knew those whom I didn't know by drawing up self-serving stereotypes, pointing to emotionally satisfying statistics, and pronouncing encompassing generalities. Over the last decade, I have come to understand the vast difference between flattened statistics, herding stereotypes, impersonal generalities that for too many have become precise absolutes rather than merely reference points on one hand, and the reality of the unique and sacred and living and standardization-defying individual human being on the hand.

(2) Second, students today do not fit into any mould of being either better or worse than they really are. They aren't any better or worse then students were before them. They aren't any better or worse than we were. They aren't any better or worse then we are. The "in my day," or "I was" or "students aren't what they used to be" prefaces I have found doesn't really serve a useful purpose because it doesn't relate to reality. Memory being what it is, the "good old days" are good because we block out the bad ones. That filter just offers excuses for those academics seeking excuses not to change, to blame it all on the students, and/or not to roll up their sleeves and get down and dirty.

In any event, I have come to struggling to be free from past situations rather than being enslaved to them. What happened yesteryear to me or in a particular class during a particular term with a particular student or group of students because of a particular situation, what has happened to others, ultimately has no bearing on how I must relate today to a particular student or group of students in a particular class during particular term in a particular situation. I struggle, and it is a struggle, not to get myself into that impossible contorted position of facing a student while looking over my shoulder at another or looking into the face of a student. And, don't think that is not tough. It is. It is very tough. What straightens me out more often than not, what throws my eyes front, is that instead of succumbing to the easier heeding of the pernicious whispers of the past, I listen to my conscience; I have a conversation with my inner voice; I follow the beckoning of my gut feeling; I focus on my purpose, vision, and mission. And so, I struggle, usually successfully, to come to realize that every day I am a different person placed in a brand new situation with different people.

(3) Third, there are worlds of difference between studying the subject a teacher teaches, studying what teaching is about, and studying how a teacher functions. The first is the world most familiar to us academics, for it is the world we were trained to live in. It is the scholarly world of information and knowledge discovering, gathering, and dissemination that concentrates on our field of study. To put all your chips into that one research and publish pot poses the danger of perpetuating the prevailing self-serving myth "if you know it, you can teach it" or "to be a good teacher you have to be a good scholar." The second world is the academic self-help cottage industry world of "how to" that lists ten ways of "ten ways to....." and fosters the belief that there is some magical recipe for teaching or some sure-fire teaching method. In this world, exists more often than not the implication that you can change what you're doing without changing what you're thinking or feeling about yourself or others. In this world, so often we are told that it is method or technology that is the most powerful classroom weapon. It poses the danger of focusing on superficial and stereotypical formulas that don't take in account either the humanity of the teacher or the students as a gathering of ever-changing diverse individuals. It is for these reasons that when I offer workshops I usually go through the exercises I call "The Parable of the Dandelion" and/or "The Parable of the Tool Kit" to lead the participants into the third world. This third world is a world in which the teacher and student are alive. They are living and complex and unique individuals, continually interacting with each other, with others, with the outside environment both inside and outside the classroom, and are engaged in an unending dance marathon of change. This critical perspective spotlights the need for a "systems" or ecological" approach, a very difficult approach, that I have come to appreciate and struggle to implement and utilize.

(4) Fourth, I read voraciously in my subject field. I have written reams of research and conference papers, untold pages of journal articles, and volumes of books. I have poured through mountains of records. I have interviewed crowds of people. I have founded an historical society, have sat on the boards of other societies, have headed committees in still other professional societies, sat on editorial boards, reviewed proposed research projects, consulted and observed and critiqued projects. I have actively participated in the administrative life of my campus, have headed key administrative campus-wide committees, was one of the key persons in the formation of the Faculty Senate, and am presently actively involved in the university's strategic planning. Now, I ask myself what among all the historical works I have read and have contributed, what among all these professional and scholarly activities, what among all these administrative campus activities have taught me about teaching? The answer is somber: none. Everything I've learned about teaching came from what I've read, listened to, studied, experimented with, developed, and experienced outside my subject field and away from campus politics. It is a much avoided truth that the skills, talents, abilities, knowledge, insight, methods, techniques required of a teacher are far removed and apart from those required of a research and publishing scholar.

(5) Fifth, the paradox of teaching is that, as Carl Rogers and Galileo have recognized, I am convinced that other than myself, I cannot teach anyone anything. To believe that I can teach someone something not only is to believe I can do something to someone, but to believe I can control that other person. I cannot do either, whether I threatened or plead. I really cannot stuff in, forcibly or otherwise. I can transmit, but I cannot turn on the receiver. Teaching has little to do with what is done to other people. I can only help, entice, lure each student to become a partner in his or her own quest to acquire the faith, belief, hope, courage, and fortitude to seek out, find, call forth, and utilize that which is within him/herself.

(6) Sixth, if I am correct, this is not to say that I have no responsibility in the process of a student's learning, that all I do is to profess and transmit the material, and that all the onus of learning falls on the shoulders of each student. My responsibility is to persuade, to create connections and relationships that are unconditionally loving, supportive, hopeful, encouraging, and believing for each and every student. When a student feels alone, lonely, inadequate, unwanted, and uncared for, when a student is left alone like that, there's a terrible fear that closes the heart and mind to anybody and anything. When I really make a student feel loved and wanted and cared about, and believed in, it brings new life in in his and her life. As Daniel Goleman points out, the glue that commits a person to him/herself and to others is their emotions they feel. What Goleman calls "dissonance," dispirits students, burns them out quickly, send them into the shadows, quiets them, paralyzes them mentally as well as emotionally and physically.

(7) Seventh, being a teacher is to be a persuader. Students always have their radar turned on full blast. They can spot a phony on their screen miles away. And when that disingenuous blip appears, they distrust, turn away, and turn off. I have found that transparency is crucial. It is not a matter of saying the right things or being in the right mood. It is a matter of being authentic and living from my genuine feelings and according to my purpose, vision, and mission. In the beginning semester "what do you want to know about me" session, students invariably ask my about my painted right pinky nail; they often ask me why I have structured the class the way I do. I share by personal Genesis story of my epiphany in October, 1991. I do so because both are compelling. I do this because I find that sharing my stories with the student for several reasons. They feel I have respected them as young adults; by revealing my humanity and my emotions, the stories create a bond that is among the first steps to breaking the barriers, building the bridges, and creating mutually supportive and encouraging community; the stories talk of self-discovery, change and take the status quo of "it's not me" and "I can't" and "I'm not comfortable with" off the table. In these stories, I became a symbol of myself, the model of my purpose, vision, mission. More importantly, I emotionally engage the students. Students, like anyone else, will commit to change, growth, development when they are emotionally engaged, when their hearts and minds are engaged. My role as a teacher is to keep the focus on the passion and discover ways to turn that passion toward the action of learning. When teachers focus only on the subject information, when they are only engaged at the intellectual level, it's virtually impossible to entice most students to maintain their energy and commitment, and learning suffers. It's a deliberate strategy of creating a "creative buzz," but controlling what I call the "crazy factor." That is, I have to be "bullish" about them and their capabilities in such a way that I capture their imagination without scaring them away. If I buy into each of them by having a supportive and encouraging relationship such as communities, by allowing them to struggle and to make mistakes, by giving them the freedom to think freely students are more inclined to buy into themselves.

Whew! That's enough for now. I think I'll stop here. There's still more to come.

         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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