There be dragons!

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A discussion on teaching

A former student of mine, interested in going into teaching, asked the following questions. Here are my answers.

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He asks: As for advice,anything you can send my way would be great. I'm not even sure what questions to ask.

Respondeo ad eum: well, let me ask a few questions then:
1. what subject(s) are you teaching?
2. what age group?
3. where are you going to be teaching?


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He asks: I guess my first question is what do you do differently from other teachers that makes you more successful or helps your students succeed to a greater degree?

Respondeo ad eum: first, I don't really follow any of that education classes BS like rubrics and week planners and teaching to different styles of learning. Partly b/c I'm no good at it, partly b/c it doesn't really seem to help in the long run. I little planning, yes, clear & simple expectations for student achievement, yes, organizing activities other than purely lecture, yes. I have a colleague who thinks that piling on oodles of terms and reading and lab work will help students love and learn the subject. Not true. An appropriate amount of work (with constant readjustment to what is reasonable) but not piles of backbreaking labor.

second, constant interpretation of texts, clarification, explaining things so that students can understand the material. discussion of the material. working through in discussion why the arguments are important.

third, I give only a few major terms that need to be known and repeat them, and repeat them, and repeat them. Other minor terms are thrown about during lectures and discussions, but the major terms (10 or so) are reiterated during the course of the year.

finally, I never pander to students. I've always treated students as though they were bright enough to understand the importance of what was put before them and important enough to put before them the best and most powerful stuff.

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He asks: Is it your passion for the subject, a passion for your students succeeding, both?

Respondeo ad eum: Both, really. I love what I teach and love whom I teach. The subject matter must be interesting to me or I can't teach it. Consequently if I have to teach something that I am not familiar with I always try to find the angle, the point of interest, something in it that I find remarkable - never teach something b/c you have to - always teach it because you have come to want to. I'm always being told "you have to love these students more" but as one of my colleagues pointed out we can only love our students to the degree that they are in our classrooms. Genuine interest in their success is important, though never to the point of sacrificing the curriculum - they need to know this stuff & to not teach it is actually doing them a disservice. But I know many teachers who love their subject matter and can't stand the students they teach; even going so far as to say that the students are idiots or that it's their fault they can't learn. Though it is sometimes their fault, if they don't understand the material I ought to make an effort to help and not berate them. Above all, compassion and mercy. I only hold a student's feet to the flames if I think it will help him/her, never just to exert my vindictive desires.

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Respondeo ad eum: Lastly, if there is any advice that I would offer gratis, I would quote one of my great mentors/teachers who said "we don't try to save every student we teach, but we do try to offer them the tools to handle salvation when it comes to them." I think that, bottom line, this is what I do (or try to do). Teaching is not about just conveying information (b/c YouTube alone would be good for that), nor is it about simply giving skills (b/c that would be found in a tech school), nor is it about saving the souls of your students (thank God, b/c I would suck at that royally!). Ultimately teaching is about training students to be able to handle the difficult choices, decisions, thoughts that will come to them. I hold this mantra for every discipline whether it be science, math, language, philosophy, history, or mechanics. I really do think (and here I will wax philosophic so you can stop reading now if you so desire) that the gristmill of life is such a crushing thing that without some ability to handle it, to think through the weirdness of our human condition and mature into rational adults, we will be destroyed; even if we go on living physically, our minds and spirits get ruined - darkened - fall into a sort of malaise of despair or monotonous repetition which is hellish. The true job of the teacher is to try and provide the ability to see order, structure, pattern and beauty in the world by means of rational thought and contemplation; the constant questioning of "why is this so?" or "what is the pattern?" or "how does this fit?" In short, teaching is a revelation that there is an order to things, a Logos, and that the Logos is beautiful.
Very Platonic of me, I know, but there it is.


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He asks: P.S.- In class yesterday we discussed the poem "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" by Robert Frost. I could't help but notice some similarities with the story of Dante's Inferno. Is this just me or do you see what I am referring to?

Respondeo ad eum: It's just you. No, seriously, I just finished teaching this and found some excellent material on this poem and on "Road Not Taken" which I will gladly share with you when YouTube is working again. I wrote several essays on the blog (ScribbleBibble) regarding different Frost poems. The connection btwn "Woods" and "Inferno" is very strong - woods, cold, darkness, despair, the longing for sleep - but did Frost intend that? Is there evidence that he was referring to that work or is it just similarly used natural symbolism (which, after all, is a bit limited as it only means what it is and not what we say it is).

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