Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Wed 8/30/2006 7:00 AM
Random Thought: What It Is About Teaching That Makes Me Happy

4:55 a.m. 79 degrees. I had opened the door and stepped out into the darkness. I thought I was hitting a wall someone had built during the night. The quiet air was awash with water. Maybe we're beginning to feel the first subtle effects of Ernesto. I drew strength and energy to struggled through the dark heaviness, from thinking about two questions a first year student, an aspiring teacher, threw at me in her journal last Friday

"Dr. Schmier, you don't know it but I've been watching you in and out of class....So, I have two questions for you. What is it about teaching that makes you always so happy and what does teaching mean to you."

Interesting questions aren't they. Certainly reflective questions that can cause you to pause. I told her to give me the weekend to think about them. After yesterday, Tuesday, I have the answers for both. Let me take the first one first.

To answer that question, I want to briefly talk about a student I'll call Samone. It's not her real name. She is a real person, a daring and courageous person I might add. She didn't know it until yesterday. Let me backup. In an early journal entry she said in no uncertain terms how nervous she was about being in this class. She had heard that she would have to get up in front of class and do lots of things. She was scared. She labeled herself as a very shy person who didn't like to get up and do things in front of people. But, she ended her message, with a wish she wasn't way, but was resigned to the fact that she was."

I replied by saying that because that's the way she has have been and presently is doesn't mean that's the way she has have to be, especially if she didn't like being who she was. I reminded her about what I said about having had cancer; that it was okay for me to have had fear, but I had to fight not to let the fear have me and stop you. I asked her what would happen if she took the risk to slowly start breaking the habit of thinking that she was shy and struggled to choose to think differently of herself, especially in this class where we'll be forging a supportive and encouraging community.

I left it at that and didn't say or write another word about it. We spent the four classes on the first phase of breaking barriers, building bridges, and forging community with a bunch of what I call "getting to know ya" exercises. Yesterday, we entered the second phase by starting to lay down the four operational principles of the class that rested on community. This semester I'm experimenting with changing the order of the exercises. I started with an exercise I call "The Story" that I have normally saved until last. I'll just say that I use it to place the material of the course and the lives of the students in historical context and to it some meaning and purpose. It has been nine years since I've written about "The Story." It's a silly story with not-so-silly meaning and with semester long impact. I always hope that something resembling noisy "organized chaos" will erupt. To recap, I hand out this four sentence story accompanied by eleven short questions to which the choice of answers are: true, false, unknown. The instructions are simple: "Read the story and answer all the questions. Everyone in your community must reach a consensus for all the answers. But you're not finished. In some manner, shape, or form of your choosing, EVERYONE in the class must reach a 100% consensus for ALL eleven answers." Then, I stand back without uttering a word or making a gesture for the students to discover that the simple story and simple answer are anything but clear-cut and simple.

Invariably, things start slow and quiet as the student read the story and initially answer the questions. Then, slowly, the silence is broken by murmur. The murmur grows into rumble, and rumble explodes into movement and sound. Students getting out of their chairs; they squeeze between the chairs, move chairs, climb over chairs; they're walking around, bumping into, bending over, kneeling; they were arguing, talking, debating, even shouting; they were persuading, being persuaded, talking, listening, not listening, being sarcastic, being disengaged, leading, following: "Let's keep it simple...." "But, we don't know..." "This is not as simple as he said it was." "Do we know anything?" "Look...." "No, you look..." "If you read...." "You can't read...." "You're reading into...." "Just read what it says...." "You have to infer...." "This is dumb....." "I don't like confrontation....." "How do you figure that...." "It says that...." "It doesn't say...." "Who cares...." Answers were erased, cross-out, rewritten, kept, defended, questioned, attacked; fighting raged over a word; struggles ensued with a phrase, confrontations were held over a meaning; heads nodding agreement, heads shaking in disagreement; voices rising into shouts, in annoyance; arms moving and flailing in all directions; feet stomping; faces smiling, frowning, laughing, becoming wrinkled and puzzled, getting tight and serious; quiet students becoming; vocal students becoming silent.

Then, I saw it happen. Samone slowly, almost painfully, got up out of her chair. There was anxiety in her eyes. As she slowly went to the front of the room, I silently said to myself, "Go girl!" She stood there for a moment. I wish I could have spoken a soft supportive "Just do it." She took a deep breath, and shouted the class to order. "Hey, listen up. Let's go over these questions together. For the first question, our community got....."

After an hour of struggling to maintain some resemblance of organized chaos, Samone led the class to reaching a 100% consensus of the answers.

At this moment, the purpose of the exercise is not important. Perhaps that is for later. What Samone achieved is my answer to what it is about teaching that makes me happy.

Samone wrote in her journal, "You could probably tell how nervous I was cuz (sic) my hands were shaky, but I figured since u (sic) told me to just not be shy that I should just get up in front of the class and go for it. And I did. I am so proud of myself...."

I wrote back a simple, "Great job. I knew you could do it. Now, you see you can....Keep on walking."

So, as an answer the first of this future teacher's question, I wrote her:

You ask what it is about teaching that makes me happy. Well, I have my own yardstick.

It's for me and only for me to define. I don't allow others to define happiness for me. If I did, I wouldn't truly experience it; if I let them lay out the path, I wouldn't be following my road; if I allowed others to dictate what my dreams should be, I'd never reach them.

The only way to reach for my dreams, to follow my vision, and to achieve happiness, as I define it, for myself is to choose what has real meaning and purpose, and significance, for me as a teacher.

You want to know what, then, tickles the sweet spot in the deep part of my soul? Let's see. Being significant, being effective, changing things, learning new things, having a 'let's see what happens approach, being imaginative and creative, having the courage to risk changing, influencing things, being flexible, being adaptable, making things happen, making a positive and lasting difference, being authentic, and, most important, being able to be in the service of others.

Being in the service of others. Having an impact on others, not just on myself, is rewarding. Being significant is satisfying. Making a difference is fulfilling. Just think of it. It is a sobering--and humbling--responsibility it is to realize that we teachers each can be the instrument of making a difference in someone's life; that our courage, empathy, love, support, encouragement, compassion, belief, and creativity can set into motion attitudes and actions that can only make for a better person and therefore a better world. That realization turns any woeful sighs I might have into joyous songs.

Now some of you may think that what Samone did was small potatoes. You'd be wrong. And, I made sure she didn't diminish the importance of what she did. As I told her, "Don't let you or anyone else let you think you took 'just' a small step. There is nothing small about it. Any step that is part of a great journey is great, and you have just begun a great journey of self-discovery."

For me, then, what appears to be the smallest, plainest, simplest moment can be fertile ground for the most extraordinary happiness.

One small step for Samone; one giant leap for the world. A lot of happiness for me.

         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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