Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun, 2 May 1999 18:29:30 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: My Dictionary of Good Teaching--My Long Reply

I think some people still don't like the words that I am offering Kenny. This last one, WILBY," prompted someone to lash out and say, "You sound like an impractical greeting card." Hallmarkish? Well....Yes....I do care enough to send the very best, and mean the words. Impractical and useless? I think not. I think my words are very practical. Let me tell you why, but first a disclaimer.

Not all things, probably most things, are as easily defined and therefore subject to observation, definition, and evaluation as we may think. And "teaching" is up there with the best of them. I know. Aristotle must be doing pinwheels in his grave. And, most of us academics love words. Now, I am not the best student of language, but I think we too often may be putting too much faith in words and think they are far stronger and precise than we think. How often do we have an experience or wake up from a dream and say, "I wish I could put it into words." If I want to measure my height, it is easy to use a tape and find that I am 5'7". But, whether I am "tall" or "medium height" or "short" is up for grabs. At what precise point do I stop being medium height and start being tall. The same is true for caring, trusting, loving, bad, good, sensitive and all those other "mysterious" and "magical" descriptives. They are conditions of existence, however uncomfortable it may be to acknowledge, that are immediately distorted when hemmed in by words, most of which, Socrates might have said, have a kind of read-into "oh, you know what I mean" fly-paper quality to which anything can be stuck. And to make the attempt to create this unnatural condition of imposed precision may be to create what Huck Finn call "the truth with some stretchers.

So, I admit that this often indefinable, mysterious, magical, glorious thing we call "teaching" isn't as precise as a lot of people would have you believe. It is a complex, slippery, and difficult intangible. Most things involving people are. And, this thing called teaching is, contrary to much information, pedagogical and technological thinking, a very personal people thing operating in a "people world." It rests heavily on that often neglected human dimension far more than it does on inanimate information and technique and machine.

Nevertheless, as Elie Wiesel recently said, it first starts with words and then it becomes actions. I would modify that statement and say the movement of the vocal cords, tongue, and lips are not much different than the movements of other body parts. Words are resounding with sound that powerfully move. Words, however imprecise, are reflections, extensions, insights, symbols. When we speak or hear words--honest or dishonest--we speak or hear emotion, intention, belief, character, values, attitude. When we speak or hear words--authentic or counterfeit-- we speak or hear soul and spirit. When we hear words, it is the heart and mind and soul speaking. How we think and feel, consciously or otherwise, dictates our actions, intended or not, subltly or overtly. They are most powerful, for better or for worse, when we put our money where our mouth is; when we walk the walk rather than merely talking the talk; when what we do is compatible with what we say; when we just don't feign and say the right and expected words; when we are honest enough that the words are portals into our spirit. Words can be life-giving, life-sustaining, productive: no less sweeping than an artist's brush, no less hammering than a sculpture's chisel, no less graceful than a dancer's step, and no less melodic than a composer's pen. They can be passive and silent: non-chalant, indifferent, detached, distanced, fearful, unspoken. They can be murmuring and complaining when things don't go the way we want, expect, or understand. They can be idling and non-working that won't let you walk the course or run the race. They can be immoblizing and dangerous reflecting bitterness, fear, anger, malice.

I told Cassandra Buncie from Penn State this morning, in response to a question something that my rabbi and I discussed last week. To teach children--to teach ourselves--not to ostracize, separate, and diminish themselves and others, we have to broaden our vocabulary beyond merely inanimate information, technique, technology to include humanity; we have to make our vocabulary fuller and more inclusive beyond merely the intellect. We have to stop talking "cliqueishly" using depersonalizing terms like nerd, geek, Greek, jock, yuppie, preppie, honors, at-risk, "don't belongs," developmental and the like. We have to stop looking at individuals and stopping sizing each up according to a mere grade or GPA and treating them as if they have signs drapped around their neck like millstones. We have to acknowledge and attack our own biases, prejudices, preconceptions, perceptions that are our own millstones. We have to recognize our hurts --personal, professional, social, cultural, religious, gender, physical, etc--that have evolved into halts and hates. Then, any only then, when we have begun to engage in such courageous soul searching will we slowly be able to convert our hurts into touchstones of helps and hopes, will we start using and living a vocabulary of repecting each individual with a faith, belief, and hope in his and her uniqueness and unique potential.

Of course, our true vocabulary, then, is our spirit, our heart, our soul that is sounded out by words and acted out by body. Consequently, my words are not solely words of information gathering or dissemination. They are not limited to pedagogical words of method or technique. And they certainly don't center only on the technology of hard drives, CD-Roms, programs, and web pages. I freely admit without reservation, hesitation or equivocation that my words often dwell on matters of spirit and attitude. Why not? We are not only thinking people. To be sure, that's what we narrowly call ourselves, HOMO SAPIEN--thinking man. A hold over from the 19th century. But, are we each not also a "feeling person?" And yet, how many times have we ourselves said and heard from others that emotions have no place in academia, that we should leave "the trash" or "dirty laundry" at the threshold.

Oh, emotions are okay in the artist workshop, on the theater stage, in the orchestral well or in the church pew or on the playing field. But, in the classroom far too many proclaim that we academicans are not artists or actors or musicians or clergymen or athletes, and to admit entrance of emotion is like experiencing reverse Darwinism, succumbing to a primal trait better to be diminished or put aside or kept outside the pristine and hallowed halls of ivy. It is as if we academics are saying, "If you want to be in your head, you have to be out of your heart." We struggle so hard to untie and separate the natural intertwining of heart and head. That separation is a hijacking of our natural wholeness no less than when we "go off the deep end." Of course, the caveat is that it is permissible to be both in your heart and head to have a passion for your subject, but about anything or anyone else? Well, then you are poisoning the ivy.

Have we become shortsighted in our attempt to be farsighted? Have we distorted in our attempt to clarify? Have we become lost in our journey to discover? Have we so flattened ourselves unnaturally that we lack or refused to acknowledge that knowledge is three-dimensional, that it is the whole behavior--body, mind, and spirit--of the whole person, that the real mistake of too many academicians is to focus only on the mind and deal only with the material? Isn't feeling, call it emotion or spirit, a powerful shaping, directing, driving force? Isn't it as important if not more important, than the intellect? After all, what you feel controls what you think and what you do. Now, I'm not sure what I mean by emotion. It's that imprecision of words again. I suggest I am talking about feelings, passions, moods, temperment, attitudes, spirit, distractions, concentrations; I'm talking about an inclination or disinclination to act that has physiological and intellectual consequences: anger, saddness, love, hate, joy, humility, arrogance, shame, disgust, encouragement, discouragement, belief, disbelief, faith, hope, hopelessness, courage, cowardice, fear, daring, boredom, excitement, grumpiness, irritability, timidity, cheeriness, friendliness, kindness, pride, satisfaction, unhappiness. Well, you get the point.

So, if I emphasize words of feeling, it is not because I depreciate, ignore, denounce the significance of knowledge or technique. It is, because we academicans so depreciate the wholeness of education, the role emotion or spirit plays in both teaching and learning. It is, I suppose, a small attempt on my part to broaden our teaching vocabulary and bring us back into balance closer to a natural wholeness, and to what I believe is the first principle of teaching. That principle, as I have said so often, is not the "what" we teach anymore than the "how" and "why." It is the "I," the "me," the person who teaches.

Yet, most of us academicans love to talk about what we teach, a bit less about how we teach, and still less about why we teach. I can understand that. We are trained almost exclusively in our subject. We are most comfortable roaming the data of our discipline since we know the terrain so well, can show students how much we know and how prepared we are. We are a bit less comfortable talking about how we teach. When we talk about the "how," it is usually about "tips," "tricks of the trade," and technology. Maybe we will talk about something vaguely called the "traditional way," or "if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for...." We talk still less about why we teach the way we teach since we generally have very little training in or given little reflective time and energy to the philosophy or purpose of education beyond transmission of information and acquisition of a job. But, when it comes to the "who" of teaching--and learning--the "I" or "me," there is a perponderance of silence.

So many of us, in order to evade and avoid the "who" of teaching and learning, attempt to step back in the classroom and view everything as objective, impersonal, distanced, and disengaged onlookers. We shun personal experiences as opinions, we depersonalize particulars into generalities or depreciate them as anecdotal, emotions are cloaked by sterile abstractions, events into theories. We develop a spectator or passer-by consciousness; we are professional tour guides, just passing through, taking a quick I-can-tell-everyone-I-was-here look, never engaging, never stopping for more than a pit stop. People become impersonal stereotype, objects, numbers, charts, diagrams; students become Detachment is the rule; sensitivity is suppressed; involvement is the sin. Authenticity is replaced by play-acting. Subjectivity is cloaked in objectivity. We so love to point out from a supposed and safe distance as if we are not taking any stands, making any judgements, do any analyzing that "the literature says...." "the data is preeminent," "according to the studies...." "the data demonstrates...." "in so and so's book its says...." "the statistics tell us..." We practice safe teaching by putting a condom over the classroom. Woe be it if anyone uses an "I" or is real. Then, they are attacked as self-promoting, pontifical, self-righteous, narcisstic, subjective, etc.

Nevertheless, without any equivocation, I assert that good teaching does not emanate from information or from technique or from technology. Good teaching is rooted in the heart and soul of the person. Anyone in dogged pursuit of good teaching must first look within him/herself for what he or she seeks. If you're looking for it somewhere and/or at someone and/or in something outside yourself, you're looking in the wrong place, for the wrong thing, and at the wrong person. What you do inside and outside the classroom is an outward expression of who you are inside at that moment. So, if you want to walk sure-footed through the terrain of the classroom, you have to scout out and know your own inner topography and geography.

So, these words I offer Kenny, after a great deal of reflection, deal with the breathe of life that is within each of us, and breathing life into us wherever we are and whatever we do. These are not flash-in-the-pan, one-time-only, surface tinkering words. They are what I call tough "always" words that have a demanding "sticking-to-itness" describing a style of existence. They are "transforming" words that talk about an inner vitality; they are "forward" words of growth, change, improvement, development, imagination, creativity. They are words of stimulation, sensitivity, empathy, understanding, arousal, enhancement, excitement, inspiration, enjoyment, stirring. For to me, that is what teaching is all about. Whatever words we use, they should be dynamic and authentic; they should not be words that muffle, repress, wall, inhibit, prohibit, chain, restrict, mask, hide, control, subdue, suppress, extinguish, quell, and squelch either ourselves or each student. They should be words that form community and webs of connections; they should not be words that separate, isolate. They should be words that elevate, not denigrate.

So, maybe in the process of striving to become better teachers we have to change our vocabulary. Only when we change our heart, however, will our mind change, will the words in our mouths change, will the movements of our bodies change, will the thoughts in our minds and the looks in our eyes and the compassion in our hearts change. All this, I find, to be a very practical matter.

Semester is almost over and I still have one more word to find if I want to complete Kenny's assignment and get a good grade. To paraphrase Dick Vitale, "It's 'Cram city.' baby!!"

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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