Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Sat, 8 Oct 1995

I went out walking early today with something of a "morning after the day before" spiritual hangover. We of the Jewish faith have just finished an eight day period of self-examination and self-reflection called the Days of Awe. For a little over a week, we are asked to recognize that the precise hardware of the brain is useless without the mushy and messy software of the heart to drive it; we are asked to acknowledge that the thinking machine is energized and directed by the feeling machine; we are asked to understand that our hearts and spirit hold dominion over our heads and intellect. It is a time when we are supposed to come inside ourselves from the outside and transfer our attention from the external "you" and "it" and "that" to the internal "I". I am always surprised by the uplifting effects of these days, which begin with the Jewish New Year and culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. I always seem to start these holidays in my head and end up in my heart. So, I guess it is fitting that I wound up thinking about the "I" in teaching as I struggled to answer the questions of some nervous students who are aspiring to be teachers. They wanted to know what they should do in the classroom and how they should relate to students.

First, I think I will tell them that it's okay for them to be uncomfortable, nervous, anxious, and even scared. I have discovered that usually meaningful and lasting success is attainable only by the uncomfortable people who find themselves in or face uncomfortable situations, by people who are not so sure they have discovered the academic mother lode that they have stopped searching, by people who are not so sure they have all the answers that they have stopped asking questions. I find the daily discomfort I experience as I prepare for or leave class sharpens my self- awareness, makes me more alert to what I feel and do, humbles me, enhances my teaching, makes me more aware of the student, focuses me on him or her so that I can search for ways to help and guide, and thus gives me a better shot at improving as both a teacher and person.

I will also tell them, however, that it's important--far from an easy task--not to let their discomfort spin out of control so that it controls them, not to let it cloud their thinking, not to let it shackle their actions, and not to let it lead them off onto the side roads of resignation and rationalization and denial. For I think that any style of teaching is best judged, not by controlling the students, but by empowering them; not by certainties or by the students who meet prior expectations, but by the surprises and by the students who don't do what the teacher expects.

I will tell them to worry about the right person at the right time in the right way for the right reason. Worry about themselves, about cultivating and improving the inner "I." Don't worry about something or someone out there. Don't worry about "that" or "it" or "him" or "her." Rivet their attention on the inner "I" of teaching, not the outer "it". For unless the teacher values, respects, likes, and accepts him/herself, he or she cannot reach out to value, respect, like, and accept the students; unless the teacher has a high opinion of him/herself, he or she cannot have a high opinion of the students; unless a teacher is sensitive to him/herself, he or she cannot be sensitive to the students.

I will tell them all this because I think teaching technologies and teaching techniques and scholarly resumes are educational camouflage; they're academic window dressing. The critical issue of education and teaching is neither the quality of the students nor the expertise of the teacher. It is neither the implementation of the new technology nor the introduction of new techniques. No lecture from the podium, no book in the library, no computer on the table can teach young people what they can be and should be. Only who the teacher is can hope to do that. For if students learn the kind of people they can and should be by imitation, if they learn by seeing who the teachers around them are, what they believe, and how they act, students will be....or feel....or believe....or do what is or is not modelled, recognized, supported and encouraged by the teachers.

So, if I'm right, as I think I am, the real critical issue of teaching is being a caring and loving person with an honest desire--and maybe daring--to reach out to touch another person.

I know that to think of teaching in terms of "I", of inserting the personal, is unsettling for so many academics because they have been taught to see teaching as an abstract, impersonal, technical, technological action of presenting information. Many have taken me to task for the "I" woven throughout many of my Random Thought sharings. The critics charge that I am egotistical, self-righteous, self-serving, self-absorbed, and self-promoting. They laugh that the "I" is full of distracting and unnecessary reflection, undermining excessive bravado, unsound observation and deliberation, and/or superficial apologia. They are uncomfortable because concentrating on the "I" rather than "you" and "it" recharts the course of teaching as "someone personal and close inside here" rather than as "something impersonal and remote out there." The "I" of teaching blurs the supposed distinctive lines between professional and person, between teacher and student. It requires an understanding of what aspects of "I" are the most important lens that focus what "I" perceive of myself, of the students, and of what I do. It challenges them to think of both themselves and the students as individual human beings. The emphasis on "I" urges them to perceive teaching as a very personal human activity in which the teacher must establish a personal connection with what he or she does and with the people whom he or she comes into contact.

Nevertheless, I am not afraid to say that the "I" of teaching is a concept that is near and dear to my heart. It's in everything I say. I unswervingly believe that spotlighting the "I" of teaching transforms education from the cold-hearted transmission of hard facts it too often is to the warm-hearted compassion about human beings it should be, and takes the theoretical and abstract world of teaching into the real and human world of teaching.

I don't think anyone can truly separate the professional from the person even though many people do their best to try to make the reality of the inner "I" irrelevant. It is, however, the "I", our inner passions, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes which chart the course of our voyage. It is the "I" that influences our ability to risk using techniques in a manner that is far more for the benefit of the students than for us. And though so many in education are uncomfortable with the idea of "I", of personal story, personal questions, personal missions in teaching, I don't believe either teaching or learning is a spectator sport where we observe, analyze, assess from distant platforms, but do not go into the arena. In fact, that may be why many others have told me that telling my own story, my own travails, my own accomplishments, my own failures, my own searches, my own growth and change, have made teaching intimate, whole, human, and real for them.

The "I" certainly makes it more difficult to "jargonize" education in a way that restricts it to the limited number of professionals who speak the jargon rather than opening it up to the public, that confuses the purpose of education rather than clarifies it, that isolates the mission of teaching rather than making it accessible, that makes academics dull rather than resonating, that conceptualizes rather than humanizes, that makes teaching exclusively intellectual rather than including the emotional as well, that places teachers at safe and cold distances rather than at involved proximity to students, that places teachers safely in touch only with the subject rather than with the human being, that is cold rather than warm, that rests on detached analysis rather than on engaged experience, that separates rather than includes, that silences rather than voices, that is elitist rather than democratic, that is clinical rather than inspired, that has educated out virtues like "compassion" and "touch" and "feel" and "experience" and "personal", that has educated in non-involvement and viewing from afar, that has no room for human interaction, that is boring and stifling and dull rather than poignant, heart-rendering, moving, exciting, strengthening, enticing, and inspiring.

And finally, I would tell the students that if ever I felt my teaching was directed at something distant, an "it", rather than involved with the intimate spirit of "I", little meaningful and lasting learning would occur. If ever I felt teaching was an infringement on my scholarly profession, then I may as well forget it! If ever I felt teaching would take even an hour from my more important scholarship, if I ever I felt it would be an interruption, I may as well forget it! If ever I thought that teaching would be a pain, if ever I felt that students would be a pain in the neck, I may as well not even bother. If ever I saw teaching as a shrewd career move to fatten my wallet and enhance by reputation rather than as a craft and a mission, I may as well get out of it. If ever I saw teaching as just a collection of days rather than an unending adventure, I may as well stop doing it. If ever I sucked up to my resume rather than work for the students, I may as well not be here. If ever I thought that my subject and research, not the students and my teaching, is my real profession, I shouldn't even do it!

And finally, I would tell them that if I feel that everything out there is an interruption of and infringement on my teaching and the student's learning, I should bother! If I feel it is my mission to find a way to reach a student who has been out of reach, I should do it! If I feel teaching is fun, more of an avocation than a vocation, I should keep doing it! If I feel that every student needs a chance to be a dreamer and to realize his/her dreams, the class room is where I should be. If I feel that teaching is a life passion what enriches my soul, if I feel it offers me the opportunity to experience all that is good in life, the class room is where I want to be.

Have a good one.


Louis Schmier  (912-333-5947)
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