Reflections on Teaching
Evidence suggests that I was not a "born teacher."
When I was in third grade, Mrs. Maderer asked if I would devote a morning recess to helping one of my classmates with arithmetic. I blinked at the fresh and long coveted blackboard, the lean erasers assembled in teacher-neat intervals, the smooth chalk in my very own hand. And I began to teach.
I do not know how long I labored at the blackboard, neatly printing my lengthy story problem. Nor do I know if my beleaguered classmate, or anyone else for that matter, ever read my plodding story of the alliterative Betsy and Bob, and the many pieces of fruit they had to exchange for reasons mathematical. I do recall clearly my banishment to the playground for the remainder of that and all subsequent tutorials.
My interest in teaching lay dormant for many years, while my delight in stories-how and why we tell them- intensified. Teaching and narrative desire were destined to merge again in my life, as I began an academic career in French language, literature, and film studies. While fiction is usually what I teach, I am thinking not exclusively of this subject matter when I say that narrative and the act of teaching are linked. Planning a course is in itself like composing a story. We select and organize information to be revealed in measured doses, over a given time frame, at specific places, through various interactions with people and things. In the story most of us would hope to tell, the characters-teacher and students together- embark on a quest for knowledge and skills. Each draws on inner motivation and past experience to overcome distractions and obstacles. Each braves challenges and tests successfully. To top it off, our characters achieve the unspoken goal of finding an improved version of themselves at the end of the course.M
But stories this happy lack flavor. Without plot twists, without the intersection of the multiple, inevitably conflicting, mercifully unpredictable narrative voices asserted by our characters, the happy ending does not ring true.
Given all the variables that contribute to the relative success of a course, it is difficult to pinpoint why one teaching story is better than another, why some classes work and others just miss. I cannot imagine that any teacher strives to commit the teaching faux pas I illustrated so well at age eight: presenting information in an unclear and disorganized way; using materials or technology to eclipse rather than enhance interaction; squelching motivation; thwarting creativity and critical thinking; ignoring all pleasure and learning styles but one's own. Yet we all manage to do these things now and again, usually, one hopes, in subtle and fleeting ways. Good teaching does not make us perfect, but it seems to make students forgive our imperfections.
Over the years, I have evaluated, created, and amassed a daunting stack of materials, real and virtual, designed to help people teach more effectively. I have also observed dozens of classes, large and small, taught in many languages. I have seen how the very same classroom activity, carried out by different teachers with different students, produces quite different results. I have also known inspiring teachers whose idiosyncratic method and style would, nonetheless, be painful to endure if imitated by anyone else.
In the end, the methods we choose give clarity, sense, and a sort of stylistic continuity to the potential chaos of the classroom. But what makes us teach well is the cumulative effect of successful techniques and many small gestures: the way we talk to an anxious student; the way we react to an awkward classroom situation; the way we give and take criticism. It is ultimately through our daily work and interactions that we compose our individual style, and arrive at a unified identity as scholar, advisor, administrator, colleague, and teacher.
I know a class has been good, when the last session seems to come one day too soon, and everyone shows up. Like the final page of a good novel, this final meeting of the class brings with its much-anticipated resolution, a sense of loss. Paradoxically, if the students and I have done our jobs, the memory of this one fine class we constructed together will wane, as we use all it has taught us to do even better things.