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Monday, 18 July 2016

5 Things That Teaching Has Taught Me

5 Things That Teaching Has Taught Me

This summer I have been teaching a creative writing course to high school students, 6 days a week. I'm pretty passionate about what I do, and it's no exaggeration (despite being horribly cliche) to say that I am pouring my heart and soul into it. It's exhausting and I love it.That being said, here are some things I am learning as I teach.

1. Sometimes the best learning happens when I stop teaching.

Even before going into this month of teaching, I was of the philosophy that a big part of teaching was not simply lecturing or giving information, but actively creating an environment in which students were able to explore new things in creative ways. This mandates that the atmosphere be both comfortable and challenging; it’s an interesting balance to strike.
This being said, as I entered the classroom I found a temptation to continue to give more and more information. To lecture. To instruct. To guide. To (re)direct and (re)adjust). To a certain extent, this is fine—students need to receive knowledge and guidance. But it is easy to go overboard on this, and to never allow space for students to explore through independent learning or group discussion. Some of the best moments of learning happened when I was not directly involved. This is a humbling recognition.

2. I am a micro-manager, a mother-hen, and a hand-holder. This isn't inherently a bad thing...but these tendencies do not (always) do justice to the intelligent and creative minds on the receiving end of this.

Those of you who know me well are probably smiling at the fact that I think this even merits any mention, as if it is new information that I am a control freak. (Okay, so I’ve always known that I’ve been this way..) but I did not realise the extent to which I was this way. I had to make conscious efforts to step back and let my students do things in a way that I KNEW was not the most efficient, or the most brilliant, or the most sensical. They learned through doing, through making mistakes, and through trying again—and this is an important process. After all, isn’t that how I’ve learned some of my most important lessons? I had to be very conscientious of this, and to let myself step back and let them explore and try things out on their own. I’m glad to be aware of this now—better late than never.

3. Organisations are bureaucratic and sometimes suck. It is important to remember, and focus on, those students whose lives might very well be changed by their interaction with their teacher.

I am doing this job for the experience of interacting with students—not for the money nor for the CV line (though both of those things are nice perks.) It can be difficult to remember that I am doing this for the students when other bureaucratic things get in the way of this. I have had, in the (I think) most literal of sense, life-changing and life-saving teachers throughout my MANY years as a student. Some of those teachers probably didn’t even realise the influence they had on me; they were just plain old great, passionate teachers and happened to have a student (probably more!) who needed such a teacher in their life at that time. I want to be one of those teachers. Seeing one of my students smile as they quietly read my feedback on one of their drafts is the best feeling. If I can make students smile, and help show them both how they are /their work is impressive and valuable and important AND how their writing can be improved...well then I think I'm doing alright. This should be what I focus on.

4. Thirteen year olds have a lot of feelings; they are still so new to the world and only beginning to grapple with failure, with being indignant, with disappointment, with cruelty. Their versions (and degrees) of each of these things take up their entire capacity for these feelings, no matter how small their particular 13-year-old vessel is. Don’t belittle it. Don’t dismiss it. And don’t wish it away. If you can, help them to wade through it.

I’m teaching creative writing. My students write poetry and they are thirteen years old…I don’t think much more needs to be said about that in terms of the angst-ridden content that is all too readily produced. I’m learning to meet them where they are at, and to share in that part of their life—and maybe even to speak into it, if the moment strikes!

5.  Everyone has a story that is waiting to be shared and that will be interesting when told by someone who trusts their listener. Learn to be that listener, and learn to show you are such a listener. And, learn to trust others when sharing your own story.

I am, among other things, a poet and song-writer. My knees still buckle when I read my poems or play my songs to my thirteen year old students. “Will they like it?,” I wonder. “Will they laugh at me behind my back after class?” (These are real thoughts I have…I am more than twice their age; how is this a genuine concern of mine?!?! And yet it is.) Sharing parts of ourselves is a scary thing—especially so, I think, when it involves both our own story and our creative spin of it. But I think that, through demonstrating vulnerability, we can create an environment where others are also more free to be vulnerable. And I suspect this is overall a positive thing. 

So, what'd I miss? What have you learned this month? Or what have you learned when in the role of teaching? I welcome your thoughts and comments!

1 comment:

  1. Excellent observations! You're well on your way to developing the atttributes of a great educator! and... remember not to take yourself too seriously.. and... Enjoy the moment[s] - they can be few and fleeting.