I remember graduate school only too well. This was before computers, so it meant long nights in the library, and long nights sitting up writing papers, having teachers who would not accept a paper if you had used correction tape or Wite-Out anywhere on the page—the page had to be re-typed with no corrections visible anywhere. Everything had to be perfect. A mistake on the bibliography page meant re-typing the entire page. As I look back on it now as a teacher myself, I see that that behavior by so many of my professors, while it taught me to be very careful with what I wrote, was nothing short of mean.
But then one day I learned from a teacher in my graduate program what it meant to be respectful of students. I learned a lesson that he probably did not know that he had taught me, a lesson I remember to this day whenever I am with a student. It was something he did with one hand.
It was mid-morning, and he and I had to meet to discuss a proposal I was working on. He was the chair of the department and was known as a man who expected the best from all of us graduate students, but he was rumored to be a kind man, too. This was not said about many of our professors.
We sat there, he at his desk, and I in a wooden office chair on the other side of the desk. I was nervous. Graduate school was something at which I could not fail. He greeted me politely and then asked a question about the proposal. I was responding when his phone rang. I glanced at it sitting there on the desk and became immediately quiet. I wondered if I should leave his office so he could take the call. It rang again.
He reached over and lifted the receiver so it stopped ringing and then put the receiver back down. He smiled, looked at me, and said, “That call was not important right now. You are.”
Done well, teaching is challenging. I think there is always the question: Do I teach what I know the students need to learn, or do I teach what the students think they need to learn?” It’s great when what I know they need to learn and what they think they need to learn are one and the same—but that’s not always the case. Then, I resolve the question like this: I was hired for my years of experience in the field in which I teach. I do know what the students need to learn.
As the world speeds up, it seems we have the pleasure of experiencing students who desire that same speed in their classes. They often want academic instruction their way and on their terms. Knowledge can be had almost instantly today. It’s accessible everywhere. However, what the students do not have is the personal knowledge that I have of the paths upon which they will journey after they graduate, my personal knowledge of the sharp rocks, the thorny bushes, the dangerous cliffs. I am the only one who has that knowledge. They cannot access it on the internet.
A reminder of why I was hired is all that it takes for me to walk confidently to stand at the front of the classroom and teach what I was hired to teach.
The other day I gave a SAKAI assignment to my students that seemed simple enough: “Create a questionnaire that you could administer to a group of your choosing and bring it to class next week.” This was in a beginning social work research class. It sounded simple to me anyway. What else did I need to say? Well, you would have thought I had asked the students to fly to the moon and bring back moon dust. My e-mail was burning up:
“How many should be in the group?”
“Is it a group on campus?”
“Do I hand it out or what?”
“How will I know if I am doing it right?”
“How will I know if it is what you want?”
“Will this be graded?”
“Calmness, calmness,” I replied back to them in a group mail. “You can do this. What do I want? Well, I want whatever it is you give me. Give it your best shot.”
“You mean it doesn’t matter if we do it wrong?” was the overall group response.
“There is no wrong,” was my response. “And, no, it doesn’t matter.”
The next week we went over the questionnaires they brought to class, and we came to a consensus on what makes a good questionnaire. “If you had told us how to do it, we wouldn’t have made so many mistakes,” one student commented at the end of class with an amused expression.
“That’s right,” I nodded, smiling back at her. “You are absolutely right.”
It was a bright sun, cool, but the sun made it feel warmer. The students looked towards me, but they looked through me. I was blurred at the front of the room.
I was not making any sounds that they could hear. On this day I would have to stand on my head.
I would have to draw funny pictures on the board. I would have to run in circles and do imitations. But nothing would work, of course. I knew that.
There was a beast in the room. They could feel it, and I could feel it. We all felt its lurking heaviness. It sat on top of us, crushing us with all its mangled metal and flashing red lights. We were smothering under its oil and gasoline and burning rubber.
I knew when I entered the classroom that the beast would be in there. I knew it was going to sit on us. I knew that there would be nothing the students nor I could do to defend against that horrible weight. I was foolishly angry at myself that I, their teacher, could not drive that horrible beast out of the room, that I could not save them from it–but the pervasive, somberness of the beast would overwhelm us. And it did.
“We’re not meeting today.”
When the room was empty, I looked again at her empty desk and told her I would miss her. Outside, the sun was graciously warm on my face. I walked with that old and worn bag of tricks clutched firmly in my hand. On most days, the tricks would still work.
I have learned as a teacher that students enter the classroom with an expectation that I will teach them something that they need to know as they journey towards a degree. I say that I will ‘teach” them something rather that they expect to “learn” something because I have found that their expectations are that if they will listen to me, the classroom will become a place where learning will occur. Looking back on my own education, I understand why they feel this way. Most of my time in classrooms was spent listening to the teacher. It was a pretty straight forward method of instruction that seemed to get the job done—after all, I did manage to get through school, which was the point, I guess.
But now I believe the point has to be more than that. Now as a teacher and not as a student, I go into the classroom and think, “What is it that I can do today that will cause these students to learn this lesson without my firm hand on the rudder? I suppose if the dean heard that he might begin to wonder why they are paying me…. But it is what I think works best: the students have the potential to learn more in a classroom where much of the class time is unscripted than they can from my binder of old worn lecture notes. I accept that I must do something productive in the classroom, so to that end I throw out topics, ideas, theories, often purposely distorting them, letting them crash and bang provocatively against the four stoic walls of the classroom, and then I sit back and listen, moving the rudder ever so slightly here and there to keep the ship going in the right direction….
The bottom line for me is this: never underestimate the abilities students have to steer the boat on a new and adventurous—and educational–course. If I always steer the boat, the boat will go only where I want it to go. It will not go into those uncharted waters that the students want to discover and explore if given the chance. On some days the boat should certainly dock safely, and on those days I keep the rudder firmly in my hands…but on many more days I want the boat to rock and lurch wildly, smashing into rocks here and there, as it charges towards who knows where. Hang on!
It takes courage on those days to keep my hands off the rudder.
When I meet any social work class, I am always a little apprehensive. It does not matter if it is the first class or a class toward the end of the semester—I am equally a little apprehensive. I have questions about myself—will I be able to help them understand what it is I think they need to know? Will what I say today make any sense to them? Can I really help them understand these important social work concepts? However, as the apprehension lessens, I become a thief. I look at their faces and think, “How can I get what they have?” So I become an apprehensive thief who hides his true intentions in carefully-crafted lesson plans.
What they have are fears, anxieties, hopes, determination, sadness, joy—all of these and more, and they translate it into energy that I can hear and take for my very own if I truly listen when they speak and when they do not. If I am good at it, I mean, if I am the thief I really want to be, they will think they are responding to my remarks, and they will not have any idea at all that they have just let me take from them something very precious—the wisdom of their youth, or the wisdom of their years, their very essence that makes a classroom come alive. But fear not as what I take from them replenishes itself instantly. A new day comes, another class comes, and I am able to do it all over again.
Students come into the classroom deserving something from me. They deserve more, certainly, than me simply expounding on theories, demonstrating my vast knowledge of the subject of social work; what they deserve is that I am an honest person who believes in himself and who knows and reveals that he does not have all the answers–and who does not want all the answers. When they look at me, I hope they see someone who is as imperfect as they are, but someone who will always be doing his best, just as they will always be doing their best, and someone who is smiling after each class as he walks away with arms laden with treasure.