Saturday, January 19, 2013

Teaching Who We Are

I'm teaching a graduate course on Writing Theory.  We read and talk about theoretical issues in teaching writing as well as in education.  I'm trying to frame a bigger political picture sometimes.

Let's face it: As a teacher, I am either aware of my place in the institution and system and I use that to my advantage to work on behalf of my students who deserve a good education, or I stay in lala land, pretending this has nothing to do with me and become a cog in the wheel.  Being a cog is pretty much what administrators and politicians want, even if they wouldn't articulate it that way.

Do I look like I'm kidding? 
So, in and around the important discussions of culture in education, constructivist theory, cognition and the writing process in general, I have been hearing rumblings of how much or how little a teacher should invest themselves or reveal themselves to students.  It comes out a little sideways, but what I hear (and maybe I am wrong) is that these teachers are uncomfortable with being personal with their students.

Enter Parker Palmer and "The Courage to Teach".  I think I'll hand out his first chapter this week.  It talks about how we teach who we are and what social presentation of the self means.  I will use myself as an example.

I love teaching and I am good at it.  I am not always successful and sometimes I really miss the mark.  You'd be crazy or disengaged to think that every single time you enter a classroom, something magic happens.

My best teaching days are filled with students who are engaged. I start with a story, something engaging about teaching in prison or growing up on the rocky hillsides and rolling hills of Dayton, Washington.  I tell stories about music or dumpster diving or camping on the Tucannon or visiting my great grandparents in their little ramshackle house way out in the boondocks, with light coming through the cracks in the boards and the water pump in the kitchen sink.  Out back was the privy and a big old tree that my grandma and her siblings walked over when it was little so that it grew sideways.  It still stands that way today, even though the house is gone and an RV park has been erected in its place.

These stories are me and the original details, the energy I put into telling them is pretty apparent.  My students can tell when I don't care about an assignment, so I tend to only give assignments I like.

We teach who we are, and I am a better teacher because I am doing something I love and believe in with everything I have.  Enough to give meaningful assignments, enough to hold students accountable for their work, and enough to know everyone's names and something about them.  I could always tell when a teacher or professor really shouldn't have been in this business, and I can sometimes tell who is fulfilling a potential that perhaps they never knew they had.

However, when I'm having a bad day, personally, they likely will not know.  My teaching persona is something I don like a mask or a costume.  It begins with my clothing and make up, continues with my lesson plan and doesn't come off until my pretty shoes get kicked into the closet at the end of the day.  Even on my crappiest days, I wouldn't trade this for the world.

Now, that doesn't solve the problem of "how much is too much?" or "how little is too little?" when sharing with students.

The answer to that question is "it depends".

Ok, this is just here b/c he's cute 
The answer is always "it depends" because I can't tell you all of the answers.

It just does.  I can't tell someone what to say in front of a class, how to inspire or to spark imagination or the willingness to explore in writing that authentic self, which is where a lot of great writing comes from.  I can offer advice on this one point: You will want to know your own heart and your own identity as a teacher.  You might consider doing that development as a teacher as a writer and as a human before you offer your skills and guidance as an English teacher (or any other teacher) to your students.  And if you don't care about student learning or about your students in general, then perhaps it would be best to do something else.

At some point you'll develop the tools to figure out situations as they present themselves.  That's why we have teaching theories.  They emerge from teaching practices. Teaching theories are the collective wisdom of many, many teachers over time.  We become aware of these theories, we apply the ones that work best for us and discard the rest.  And sometimes we contribute to these theories ourselves as we pass them on to others.

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