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After what seems like an entire year spent pondering my own path to happiness, I think I’ve finally come to an understanding that is helpful … at least for me. It happened while I was compiling a list of “quotes to live by,” which in turn was prompted by a quote from the film Little Miss Sunshine. (The quote, “do what you love, and f#@k the rest,” is worthy of a separate discussion because I only agree with it in part.)

For a while, I’ve been feeling an almost desperate need to leave the world of education, that I needed to make a choice between teaching and some other thing. I’ve also been feeling a bit like a phony, because I haven’t been pursuing my own dreams. This made my words ring hollow in my ears as I helped students to pursue theirs. Along with the usual litany of educational problems, these concerns were driving me from teaching (and even had me considering taking some corporate desk job just to get away … despair!)

But I wasn’t happy with the choices that resulted from that line of thinking, either. I truly love teaching and working with students, and I believe I’m good at it–that I have a genuine talent for it. Still, the voice of discontent would not be silenced.

The moment of revelation relates to a meme I’ve seen in a few places in the edublogosphere lately about the changing nature of education and teaching. (Here’s one example). The best way to sum up my conclusion is through the title of this post: teaching is consequential.

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines “consequential” as:

1. following as an effect, result, or outcome; resultant; consequent.
2. following as a logical conclusion or inference; logically consistent.
3. of consequence or importance: a consequential man in his field.
4. self-important; pompous

Here’s what I mean:

1: Teaching should follow whatever it is that we (as teachers) do. In other words, teachers should teach what they do, and do what they teach. All teachers should be learners who are busy doing the work of learning. Our teaching should flow as a result of that learning. Teachers should also be, to some extent and in some capacity, writers, and therefore should teach as a result of their own writing. Other teachers are also artists, and should teach as a result of their art. Others love to study and understand how the past affects our present and future, and should teach as a result of this study. And so on. But in no case is teaching what we do … it is the result of what we do. Said differently: teachers must be more than teachers … they must be people who do and are willing/able to help others do the same … teaching is secondary to the doing, the living, the learning.

2. Teaching should be logically consistent with what we do. I find that many teachers ask their students to do things that they themselves would never want to do or would never have any need to do. The system drives us to this level of stupidity, I think. If we are writers, then our teaching about writing should follow from that, and our methods of instruction should be logically consistent with how we write … or how we learn, how we art, how we do whatever it is we do.

3. Teaching should be about that which is important. This shouldn’t need to be said, but unfortunately must be said. We spend far too much time in the classroom “stressing out” both ourselves and our students over things that don’t really matter, so much so that everyone loses sight of the things that do matter. As a result, students walk away having no real understanding of the larger picture, of the major concerns of each discipline, of the connections and influences among the disciplines, or how these things fit into life and its living.

4. Teaching runs the great risk of being self-important, of being an end in itself. And it’s not. As I’ve said, teachers do and then help others to do … the teaching is secondary. The act of doing (and trying to do) should keep teachers humble, or at the very least keep the work at the center and not the teacher. This removes all sorts of stress and barriers and opens education up to a means of moving forward, of working cooperatively, and of doing things that are important and worth doing.

So, what will I be doing (and thus, what am I qualified to teach)? Learning from a wide range of sources, reflecting and writing to understand my reflections, reading and trying to understand some of the great works, great minds, and great movements in literature, philosophy, and the arts. Becoming a more helpful member of my community (local and global) through my involvement in politics (as a citizen in a democracy) and through volunteer work. Attempting to create art through stories, poetry, and film. Coming to understand my world through images in photography. Wrestling with emerging technologies and their impact on how we live. And of course, the myriad skills that underlie those pursuits.

From all that doing, I hope some worthwhile teaching will result.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • Thomas says:

    So, by your statement 1, you’d prefer a system more like most college/university institutions were the teachers pursue their work in a field at the same time as teaching? I guess you’d just prefer no strict requirements like requiring published works and such?

  • Eric Hoefler says:

    Something like that, yes. And I’m definitely not asking for any outside agency to enforce or monitor this. This is all thinking out loud, of course, but it relates to this quote from Roger Schank:

    “This is how you figure out what should be taught in school: Ask successful adults what they do all day and check how often different skills show up.” (source)

    The other part of this ideas seems somewhat common-sense … Who would you rather have as a physical fitness teacher: a regular participant in triathalons or a 300lb. guy with greasy hair?

    Before I make people angry, I’m not suggesting that any teacher not “doing” in his/her field is like the greasy-haired guy, I’m just suggesting that the best teachers are those who are actively engaged in their field(s) … and in as many aspects of their field(s) as possible … and in as professional a capacity as possible.

    Because I’m an English teacher: I should be reading all kinds of things (including criticism and reviews, classical to pop); I should be writing both reflectively and for publication; I should be giving presentations to other professionals; I should be learning incessantly and joyfully about anything that catches my interest. Because I’m a creative writing and humanities teacher: I should be involved in and aware of local and international politics; I should travel when possible and be actively engaged in learning about other cultures (in the widest sense of that word); I should be writing fiction and poetry for publication, acting, making movies, playing music, etc.; I should attend readings and gallery exhibits and museum lectures. Because I’m a teacher of the future (all students are the future, so all teachers are teachers of the future), I should be mastering the best tools for improving learning and reflecting on their value and best uses.

    I’m sure there are lots of other things I should be doing, too. (And I’m not claiming that I always do all those things I’ve just listed, but we must have ideals, yes?)

    Or am I just crazy … ?

  • Jeff says:

    I can’t agree more, Eric. There’s a debate around these parts about what constitutes an Honors class–Is it more work, or is it more engaging/challenging work? Is it reading two more novels than the non-Honors sections, or is it helping students explore what really interests them? Is it okay to take an Honors class just for the GPA boost, or should the weighting system go the way of all other ill-conceived ideas?

    It’s naive to think that we can make students into learners and enthusiasts, but it’s equally naive to think that we shouldn’t be what we want our students to be. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told, by otherwise-jaded students, that it’s a teacher’s perceived enthusiasm for his or her subject that makes the difference. It’s not knowing everything; it’s being willing to find out about new things.

    I don’t know how this is going to fit in with standardized testing, decreased funding for perceived non-essential programs, reductions in team-teaching assignments, &c. Keep writing on this, though–a lot of us are reading.

  • […] Eric: Teaching should be logically consistent with what we do.  I find that many teachers ask their students to do things that they themselves would never want to do or would never have any need to do.  The system drives us to this level of stupidity, I think.  If we are writers, then our teaching about writing should follow from that, and our methods of instruction should be logically consistent with how we write … or how we learn, how we art, how we do whatever it is we do… […]

  • Methinks your waters are being stirred. I wonder if the answer is in the doing or the being – after all, our ideals should not be completely unattainable but should be difficult enough to make us stretch. Perhaps beyond the reach of the natural man… If you pursued even half your list, I think you would lose that time of reflection that is so vital to assimilating all that you are trying to take in.

  • […] This all brings me back to John Zorn. He’s someone who is not afraid to explore; in fact, he’s a great metaphor for how I think learners should act. Within some parameters, which he establishes for himself at the outset of a project, he tries his ideas again and again, in different permutations, never content to settle on a final product. Can’t we, as students and teachers (and we’re all learners, or we better be, or else we’re all sunk), try to use John Zorn as a model? […]

  • […] Project: the best teachers of writing are teachers who write. Also, I wrote about this in “Teaching is Consequential“ [back] Tags: affective, assessment, curriculum, learning, nwp, popculture, reform, […]

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