Monday, March 3, 2014

Those That Understand

How do we know great teaching when we see it? If students can be sure of it in ten silent seconds of video, as Malcolm Gladwell described in Blink, what do they see? What is that thing, that spark that resides at the heart of great teaching? Is it apparent the moment a teacher  first enters the classroom or does it take a lifetime to achieve? Can great teaching be taught, or is it part of a larger talent - for performing, for attracting, or for creating some intangible, magical tether with students that allows for the transfer of knowledge and enthusiasm?

I certainly don't have the answers to these questions, but I'm hoping that by interviewing a series of great teachers we can chip away at the superficial exterior and get at some answers. As our nation attempts to uncover teacher and school effectiveness with their blunt tools, I worry that the details we really need to bring to light will get obliterated in their clumsy hands and destroy the truths that lie underneath. 

The first interview in this series will appear next week, but I'd like to get this party started with an excerpt from a book you've likely never read, or even heard of. Getting to Noh is a self-published book, the story of how a good man became a great teacher. Its author, Don Cannon, now retired, was once my English teacher. He is a gifted educator, and the first person to show me what great teaching looks like. He was not interested the simple transfer of information, he craved honest exchange. He was as interested in us as we were captivated by him, and in him, many of us found a love of literature, a thirst for deeper, greater meaning in those books, and a bit of direction on our own paths toward....well, wherever they lead. 

Rather than put words into his mouth, I will share his, from the introduction of his book, Getting to Noh

What I loved about teaching was the difficulty of it. Nothing was tangible or predictable. What worked one day, fell flat the next. What made someone else a good teacher, in my hands became muddied. When one problem was solved, another was created. More than skills, the young people before me craved vision. They wanted me to tell them what I saw when I looked at them. They wanted to be free to laugh, and sometimes to cry. They wanted to share thoughts they believed no one else had ever had. They wanted to know it was all right to be confused and to have dreams that were unrealistic. They wanted to be told then they had gone too far, so that they could tell me that I was wrong and unfair. They wanted to know that they would be forgiven when they fell short of expectations. But, most of all, they wanted someone to believe in them.  

What I didn't know at the time, however, and which complicated things considerably, was that teaching for me was a selfish act. I worked tirelessly to serve my students. I prepared constantly, reread every text before coming into class, corrected and commented on papers well into the night. I revised my "lessons" yearly, sometimes daily, to find ways to stimulate their interest and excite their thinking. When I came into class, I had lists of questions that personally I was looking to answer. I had ideas and possibilities I wanted to test against my students' thinking. Yet I wasn't interested so much in their receiving my knowledge as in being given access to theirs.  

Whether in need of their approval, in fear of being unsuccessful, or simply being caught up in the power and intoxication of self-discovery, meaningful dialogue, and occasionally the trappings of thinking for its own sake. I was working more for me than for them. Their exuberance, their defiance, their lack of barriers, excited me. Their need for discipline, for encouragement, for recognition, mirrored my own. I labored under the basic premise that anything is possible, that intelligence is universal, that change is a necessary fact of life. I longed to see them define their fate, invent themselves, imagine new possibilities, because it gave me faith that I could do so as well. At my best, I overcame my own needs and simply concentrated on satisfying theirs, but those moments were rare and all the more precious as a result.  

Teaching is a symbiotic exercise much like play, a vital exchange of energy and creative potential that can be grounded in rote or repetition (which has its place), but ultimately is realized in moments that feel timeless, the product of effortless grace. For me, all disciplines of any worth are like this, inherently interesting and full of unexpected wonder, whether they be sports like basketball, soccer, or even golf, or work like carpentry, planting a garden, or painting a house. All tasks have meaning and purpose if we are open to them. At my best, I helped my students understand that fact. Frustration, anxiety, and failure are part of the process. We must learn to embrace the pain of life. Whether learning a skill or creating a Self, we are ennobled by trials and surprised by their results. 

And with Don Cannon's sage words, I welcome you to "Those That Understand." Sign up for the posts over there on the right-hand side of the screen and I'll see you back here next week with my first guest, one of the most naturally talented educators I've ever seen.  

1 comment:

  1. How fortunate you were to have such an outstanding teacher.