Copyright © Louis Schmier

Date: Mon 3/27/2006 3:54 AM
Random Thought: Teach Me How To Teach

What's with this weather? Today I was out bundled up in my Carolina grubbies, stupidly walking in this low 30 degree air with a hacking cough and slightly stuffy nose that just won't go away; last week it was shorts and a tee shirt. Until the last few days, when the chill put Spring on ice, March thought it was April. I know my flowers had been fooled by this mistaken identity into thinking Spring had been sprung early upon them: roses budding, weeds flourishing, amaryllis flowering, day lilies priming themselves, dogwoods blooming, tiger lily stems appearing, and stokesia bushing. I wouldn't have put it passed by caladiums and hosta to have sneaked an early peek above ground. This coldness and warmth got me thinking of a message I had received over the weekend and an experience I thankfully had in the elevator of our local hospital.

The message was from an aspiring college professor who wanted to be more of a teacher than a researcher and who admitted that she had had little or no real preparation for the classroom. The crux of her message was a request, "Please teach me how to teach students and what I should be shooting for."

I partially answered, "For starters, as a Zen story goes, you first have to teach yourself. So, I'll ask you to ask yourself three questions. First, what do you want students to deeply learn? That is, what's the purpose and meaning of what you want to do? Second, who are you? Third, who are the students? While you're pondering the answers, let me give you a hint of where I am coming from so you can decide whether to continue our conversation."

"You have to first learn that whatever methods or techniques you adopt, the first and foremost thing is to remember--and never forget--is that you're in the people business. You're a person; each of them is a person. That's the core of my 'Why,' of the meaning and purpose of what I do. What I mean by that is that you have to remember who is teaching and to whom you are teaching is far more important than what you are transmitting or how you're transmitting. In fact, your 'why' and 'whom' will tailor your 'how.' In other words, you have to get beyond thinking about only the subject, methods, and the faceless, impersonal, herding stereotype of "student," and find ways to get to know the student for the individual human being she or he is; you've got to know what is on her or his mind and in her or his heart if you want to get inside and stay in her and his mind and heart. If you want to put meaning and purpose into your teaching beyond transmitting information, you have to know to whom you are teaching. When you teach, you have to remember where to look and whom to see; you have to know where to hear and to whom to listen. Don't look solely at yourself; don't think only of yourself; don't just "me," "I," "me," "I" your teaching Take the concentration on "me" and "I" out of your teaching and replace it with a focus on serving a "her" or "him." You have to welcome, embrace, the inexperienced and imperfect but no less sacred people and help each help her/himself. You have to be ready to accept discomfort, inconvenience, and challenge. When you start doing that, you'll start teaching individual people and realize that teaching is far more than the passing on of information, testing, and grading. You'll see an education is far more about learning how to live the good life than merely learning how to make a good living."

"Let me give you an example of what I mean by relating a conversation I had in a hospital elevator last Thursday. I had just left my mother-in-law's room in a somewhat cold, depressed, and distracted state of mind. It was about 9 am. I was tired; I was down; I was drained. I had rushed to her room to help calm her down after we had received a call at 5:30 am from her sitter. She was confused, didn't know where she was, and was afraid Susan and I wouldn't find her. I was headed for class. It was her third stay in the hospital fighting pneumonia in two months while she was recovering from a fall in December that had cracked her tail bone and broken nine ribs. In this short time, she has gone from independent living, to assisted living, to respite care, to temporary rehab in a nursing home. The family was facing some hard decisions about how to avoid placing her permanently in a nursing home. Needless to say, I've been off my game since her fall in December as I struggled to stay in the game, recover from my hernia operation, and be there constantly for my Susan. Anyway with all this on my heart and soul, the elevator door opened. I went in, moved to the back of the car, and turned around. Behind me, in stepped a family. My mind and heart were a blank. I was in a haze and just staring. I really didn't notice them. I was doing everything I could to get my juices flowing. I didn't want to hurt the students in class. But, all I could think about my Susan's sad, teary eyes and thinking that there can't be a more pernicious disease than dehumanizing Alzheimer's. Then, I vaguely heard the young lady, in her very early twenties, whisper, 'Grandma, that's my teacher we had been always talking about. That's Dr. Schmier'"

"I slowly lifted my head, looked at her, and recognized her face. Although I didn't remember her name, I did remember some long, candid, and challenging conversations I had had with her. She had been in class some years ago. I offered a very weak smile."

"The person she was whispering to turned to look at me. 'Are you Dr. Schmier? You really are Dr. Schmier, aren't you?'"

"I barely nodded, 'The one and only.'"

"'Ain't that the truth," she chuckled. 'I heard you had died.'"

"I thought I couldn't get lower than the moment I walked out of my mother-in-law's room. At that moment, I knew how Mark Twain felt when he had read his obituary in the newspaper."

"'No,'" I feigned a chuckle. Fighting a desire to be invisible, I weakly continued, 'Still here and kicking.'"

"'You retired, then?'"

"'Some wish I was, but no. I'm still having too much fun and still have too much to do.'"

"Then, the elevator suddenly started glowing. 'I'm glad to hear that. You were my teacher a long while back. I won't tell how far back. You won't remember me.'"

"I asked her for her name. She told me. 'I'm sorry. I don't remember you.'"

"'Well, it's been a while. I told you that you wouldn't remember me, but I haven't forgotten you. I can tell you now, as I have been telling my children, especially Latasha here, that was some class. It was more than a class; it was an experience, a life-saving experience. The only one that had real lasting meaning for me. It had affected everything I did in all my other classes and my whole life. I heard from Latasha it was as much for her. She'd come back from each class all excited and tell me what you all had been doing. I was jealous because we hadn't done a lot of what you're doing now. Sometimes she'd get down on you because you were in her face and wouldn't let her get away with doing less than she was capable of doing. She'd complain that you were always pushing her to do more than she thought of herself. I'd tell her, "Listen to him, girl. He did the same for me."'"

"'What did I do?' I asked as I began to perk up."

"'Let's just say, the class was more than the history I learned or that first ever A I got. You got me to get in my face and got me to kick myself in my butt, and helped me start changing who I was by helping me to showing myself who I could become. You stuck to me and changed my world. You showed me what an education was truly all about. I've been doing that all these years ever since with myself, my children, my grandchildren, and each of my students: never accepting limits, always pushing out boundaries. I should have told you this long before now, but never got around to it. I'm glad I ran into you. I guess it's the Lord doing His work.'"

"Feeling a sudden uplift that defied gravity, I humbly answered, 'Maybe so. I'm truly glad we met. Thank you. You've given me something I truly needed.'"

"Just then, the elevator doors opened. We hugged and went our separate ways. The chill and sadness of that the hospital room was tempered by the warmth and joy in that elevator. As I walked to the car, I thought, 'First Crystal. Now Caroline. Someone is giving me a message I haven't been reading lately.' And, I perked up."

"Want to shoot for something?" I emphasized, "Shoot for a eulogy like that."

         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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