Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sat, 13 Feb 1999 12:51:27 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: The First Word in My Dictionary of Good Teaching

A good morning to you all. It's late, I know. But, I had gone out on the streets long after the sun had risen after wrestling for a while with whether I should test a kink in my hip. After I had finished my walk, I had grabbed myself a cup of freshly brewed coffee and had gone out to the back deck by the fishpond to "cool down" in the chill of the 32 degree air. It wasn't long before I was mesmerized by the hynoptic sound of the waterfall into meditative state that blanked out all interfering sights and sounds around the pond.

As I watched the koi's melodic ballet beneath the pond's surface, I slowly noticed that whether they danced in a broad and curving largo, or in a gliding and graceful adagio, or in a sharp and scurrying adante the water so perfectly molded to the smooth flow of their elegant and effortless movements that it offered no sense of movement iself. Then, I slowly turned my head and stared at the water clinging to every nook and cranny of the rock walls and ledges, creeping up and receding like slight, pulsating tidal flows in the quick rhythm sent out by the ripples of cascading water from the falls. Those ripples drew my eyes to the streams and waterfalls. I watched as the water conformed to whatever circumstance it found, customizing its shape and altering its pace, changing its pitch and resonance: flowing smoothly along the even stream beds, rushing excitedly around rocks and pebbles, jumping athletically over leaves and twigs, pooling lazily in a depression, frantically bouncing off limbs, and finally daringly leaping over the edge to merge and disappear into the mass of water on the pond's surface.

There was an empty pail cup on the nearby table. I leaned over, picked it up, and dipped it into the pond. The water flowed into the pail suddenly, perfectly altering its shape to conform to the cup.

And, I had the beginning of my answer. It kind of sneaked up on me from somewhere when I thought I wasn't looking or listening. I didn't think I was really thinking about it. It wasn't a jolting shout of a "boo" or one of those explosive eureka, "I've got it" instants. It was more like the slow, creeping, enveloping whisper by the enigmatic muse of a good idea as I traveled from koi to rocks to streams and to waterfalls.

Now you may ask, answer to what? What was the question? It was a question asked of me by a student I'll call Kennny. A few days ago, as I meandered across the campus, heading for the Union in quest of a sinful morning doughnut, I was waylayed by Kenny. He is in one of our first year classes. He had already gone through the community building exercises, a couple of tidbit discussions, working on and presenting the class-rocking Tin Pan Alley project, and is now involved in preparing the Dr. Seuss Project.

As we walked towards the Union, I asked him how he liked the class so far.

"I really like your approach. It's different, but it makes learning history interesting and fun, and I've already learned a lot about history and myself. I want to be a teacher and help kids to learn that they can learn....What words about teaching would you give me?"

"Give me time to think about," I said thinking about how I get myself constantly into these situations.

"Take your time," he answered with a impish smile as he pealed off to go into a building we were passing, "enjoy your doughnut. Just make sure you walk it off tomorrow morning. Oh, and do something different?"

He didn't see my puzzled look. "Different?" What the heck did he mean. When I made the mistake of asking "what do you mean by 'different?" What do you want," he threw one of my pat answers to similar students questions right back in my face.

"Whatever. It's not what I want. It's what you want. It's your answer. Take the risk and go for it. Worst that can happen is that your answer won't be differant and you'll have to do it again," he smirked.

"Thanks," I smiled, feigning an annoyed sneer and playfully thinking less than nice thoughts.

I know I could have come back to Kenny with a quick statement about expected words like love, caring, heart as kernels of good teaching, or wait to compose a reflection on hope, faith, belief, wonder, and a host of other words I have listed in what I call my "Alphabet of Good Teaching (haven't yet come up with one for "Q"). But, he said, "different." So, following his rules, I thought I would try to add some unique word, eye-catching and provoking words to my dicitonary of good teaching.

Well, here is the first: "WATER!"

Interesting word, isn't it. I'll bet it's one he is not expecting. But, this morning I think it is a good word.

A good teacher is like that water, deeply alert to and responsive to and molding to each and every circumstance and to each and every person he or she finds in a particular place at a particular moment. The good teacher places a high value on responding to and even anticipating people, places, and things--goes with the flow, dances with to the different tunes, sculpts him/herself to situations and individuals. The good teacher, like the water, engages in a kind of dynamic play of interaction and interdependence between him or her and each student. The good teacher makes it seem natural and effortless and the flow of the water. But,t takes enormous desire, energy, preparation, practice, concentration, and discipline to attain and maintain this state of mind and soul, to stay constantly tuned it, to stay constantly alert, to stay constantly on your toes, to stay at the edge. Hey, anyone who thinks that good teaching is easy and quick doesn't know anything about good teaching.

Certainly, the good teacher has to know something, has to have an expertise. After all, no one is going to do anything, good intentions not withstanding, unless he or she has what the jargon calls a mastery of a field. At the same time, the good teacher knows, to paraphrase Einstein, relationships are more important in teaching and learning than information. The good teacher sees every person and every action in the classroom as interrlated parts of a single, delicately interwoven ecological system which rests on the principle that the best teaching is that which is truly adaptive and responsive to both the individual's needs and the total environment in the classroom. So that even if someone proclaims him/herself to be a standard-bearer of traditional methods, he or she shouldn't be talking of very fixed, stagnant, unimaginative, conforming "oh, it always has been done this way" set of rules in which he or she does precisely according to the dictates of what those who have gone before have done.

It can never truly be "always has been done this way." The good teacher knows that no two students are identical; no two classes are exactly the same as the last; each is unique. The good teacher is, therefore, always tinkering, learning from each class how to do it a little bit better, expanding his or her technique. The good teacher, traditionalist or an innovator, therefore, finds him-/herself in different circumstances that are different from predecessors and that even to follow convention must involve adaptation and modification and innovation.

So, I think I'll tell Kenny that my first word for his vocabulary, and mine as well, for good teaching is: "water."

Yeah, I like that. Something different. Something unexpected. I won't tell him what I told you. I'll him stew a bit, be puzzled, and think about it for a while to see if he can figure out what I mean.

And, you know what? The second and third unique words to give Kenny just hit me. Should I tell you? Why not. Let's see if you can figure out what I mean. Here they are: "read," "wobble." Later. Meanwhile,

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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