June 10th, 2011

roaring twenties


Muriel Spark's Miss Jean Brodie proclaims, "The word "education" comes from the root e from ex, out, and duco, I lead. It means a leading out. To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul."  

Jean Brodie is perhaps not the best teaching model on offer.  She's self -absorbed, peremptory, and disfigured, in the end, by her own hubris.  Trapped in a world that neither recognizes nor can appreciate her intelligence and desire, she gathers her girls around her and puts on the Brodie show. Despite her purported philosophy, her tragedy, and her crime, is that she is not capable of attending to, perhaps even interested in, the souls that teem around her.  She encourages only those desires and curiosities that feed her own story.

Yet there is something to what she says, after all, about the soul and its connection to teaching.

I have been teaching professionally for twenty-one years.  If you include parenting--and why wouldn't you?--I have been teaching for thirty years.  If you include being a devoted older sister, I have been teaching for forty-seven years.

I am a pretty good teacher.  Some days are better than others, but all in all, I add value.  That doesn't mean I never fumble.  I do.  And will again.  I cannot help but fumble, teaching being, to me, what it is: a foray, a hope, and a gesture.

The gesture is an embrace.

At the college where I work, performance evaluation is part of the process, the part administrators seem most to welcome and comprehend.  Many teachers become frustrated with evaluations because they tend toward quantification of learning, and while that's important to everyone involved, it doesn't quite get at the heart of what it means to engage a group of people ("learners"--duh) in a way that turns them, and the teacher, inward and outward simultaneously.  Yes, I suppose you can look at my students' sentences, essays, thinking patterns and measure the differences before and after they've spent a term with me and their fellow students.  I recognize my responsibility to the system insofar as it depends upon me and others like me to ensure that a certain body of knowledge--the way metaphor works, for instance, or the handiest methods for beginning a paragraph--is both explicitly required and reliably measurable.  After all, I do appraise learning, and in the crudest of ways, with grades.  Sometimes, when I am working my way through a stack of essays, I imagine grading them like we grade meat: prime, choice, utility, and so on.  I guess I am grading them that way.  It sums up a certain kind of learning, perhaps, but just as often sums up a certain kind of person, or a certain pattern of experience, in that the grade (and all teachers know this) has as much to do with what the student brought to the room as with what he or she learned there.

Students get at this in short form when they say "I'm an A student" or "I've always been about a C in English."  These statements make me sad, and I always protest them (I may not be right, but sadness is a clue).  How can I, how can a system made up of nine parts bureaucracy to one part exploration, ever tell you what you are?  How can any system, whatever its make-up, tell you what you are?  And as long as you let the system's crude rubrics tell you what you are, how can you be free?  And if you're not free, what is the point of teaching and learning? 

How can we embrace?

A young man who spent time in a couple of classes led by me has moved on now to become a teacher himself.  In the midst of his teacher-training, he asked me to say what I thought teaching was about, or rather, what make teaching good teaching, or perhaps it was, what's the point?

My answer was a blurt: something has to happen there (wherever there is--the site of teaching) that couldn't happen anywhere else.  

What I meant, what I should have said, is love. I should have told him and will tell him, should he ever ask again, the secret is love.

To teach and learn, we must love.  That doesn't mean we must think each other, or ourselves, the most wonderful beings imaginable.  (Who, in any case, could truly love the most wonderful beings imaginable?   They would be like the planets, brilliant and moving and far away.)

But it does mean we must love the very thing we are all talking about, the knotty and nuanced experience of being human.  It means, to me, that we must be open to the humanness of the students, and of the teacher, and even of all those people who are not in the room.

When I talk to other teachers about teaching, I hear a lot of lamentation.  They're overworked, for one thing, in ways that people who do not teach cannot imagine.  This is, perhaps, one of the reasons our culture so resents teachers even while it lauds them in the abstract--we don't actually know, unless we are in it ourselves, what kind of energy it takes to try to meet a various set of minds, over and over again.  That energy is often the primary energy in the classroom.  I have certainly had the experience of feeling I was stretching my own personality over a chasm of anxiety and distraction, making of myself a kind of bridge from the idea to the preoccupied mind that I am trying to engage.  But teaching goes best when I not only make that bridge, but cross it.  Or better, allow them to cross it to me.

Teaching goes best when I love, for when I love, I am not the only energy in the room. I am not alone.

To love in the classroom, I must bring to it all my pain, all my joy, and all my wonder.  Especially my wonder.  How did we arrive where we are?  How can we be better?  What is it to be a human being?  What is it to try to touch another human being?  In part, it is to admit that connection is both the most desired thing and the most difficult.  To admit that when I come to the classroom, I come full of need, and that my students do too.  Not all of those needs are visible.  What do I know of the worries that keep my students awake?  What have they survived?  What do they fear they cannot survive?  What are their pains?  Their joys?  Where is their wonder?  If I allow myself to imagine them in their place of speaking and being, I know more than I think I do.  If I push that knowing away, I have nothing left but facts and standards.  Facts and standards are not teaching. 

But I want more than knowing.  I want to be open to not knowing.  I want to be a question mark and not a period.  I want to let my students know that I am imagining their souls and am curious about whether what I am imagining is close to what they imagine about themselves.  I want to let them imagine me, my soul.  That means being human, and I can only do that, I think, if I love what it is to be human and so love the humans I meet, semester after semester, in the grey-drone rooms where we read poetry, and laugh at ourselves, and face the truth, whatever it seems to be.

That is to say, for me, teaching and learning have to do with something like tenderness in the face of human vulnerability, for vulnerability is the conduit to knowledge.

Miss Jean Brodie is right about leading out what is already there in the pupil's soul.  But first, the teacher must take in the awesome reality that there is a soul, and it's present here, now, in this room, throbbing with feeling and ever-changing.  Then the teacher might learn, and if the teacher learns, then teaching might happen.  We are all aching, so why hide it?  Why not love and be loved for the ache itself? 

I allow another human being, the great-souled E.E. Cummings, to say it for me: "I'd rather learn from one bird how to sing / than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance."