Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Teacher's Presence


During my first year of teaching, I studied the faces of my students for the answers to a host of questions: Do you respect me? Do you think I care about you? Do you know that I don't know what I'm doing? Do you think I am a good teacher? Do you know that I'm afraid? Do you like me? Essentially, instead of seeing my class as a room full of individuals, most days I stood up and saw row after row of fun house mirrors, reflecting my own deficiency. I looked to their faces not to find out who they were, but to find out who they thought I was. 

As a result, I suspect the person in my classroom who learned the most during that year was me. I learned a lot about what my students thought about my teaching. Some liked it, some hated it, and some tuned out. But the most depressing outcome was that instead of being about learning, my classroom continually slipped back into a referendum on how good I was at my job. We had great moments in class, and there were students who did amazing work, but it wasn't until later that I figured out that in order to teach effectively, you have to be present enough in your class in order to see the person you are teaching.

Instead of being guided by a question about external impression, the most important question a teacher confronts is Who am I? This is the true essential question for learning in my classroom and before I can get my students to grapple with it, I have to be fully engaged with it myself.

Not only do students need to see that I have considered the question, but they also have to see that I haven't stopped asking it of myself. They need to see that the point of the question is not to provide an answer that can be bubbled in on a Scantron (male, female, teacher, student, black, white, poor, rich) but instead that the process of observation and reflection required by the question is the goal.

Paradoxically, the more I'm engaged and present with the question, the more clearly I'm able to see the individual sitting in front of me. Instead of seeing only myself in my students eyes, I start to see who they are and, perhaps, who they could be. I use this knowledge to shape a classroom experience and curriculum that communicates what I've witnessed. In that way, one of the most important elements of teaching is the ability to witness. It's not coincidence that the first question a witness in court is asked is: Were you present...?

One of the reasons that teaching is such a challenge, especially early on, is that presence is not something you can just pick up when you step in the classroom. You have to manifest presence in your life overall in order for it to be effective in your class. Some days I'm good at it, some days I suck at it. My bag of tricks has expanded over the years, but when I get stuck in class and the learning is stagnant, I still confront the same old questions that I did during my first year, but now I know those questions are secondary to the true matter at hand: How present am I? How present are my students? How will the things we're learning make us more so?

Just the other day I stumbled upon Parker J. Palmer's The Courage to Teach, where he says:
Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves. The methods used by the these weavers vary widely: lectures, Socratic dialogs, laboratory experiments, collaborative problem solving, creative chaos. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts--meaning heart in its ancient sense, as the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self. 
It's probably no coincidence that in a time when our technology is purposed to promote an illusion of connectedness, that teaching is under assault. Listening to the discourse around education, you would have thought that "true" education only started with "reform" or whatever buzzword being recently applied to schools. But people have been teaching for as long as there has been humans, and no matter the era, the best teachers are still those who are most connected with themselves, with their students, with their subject, with the world.