I’m not the quickest learner in the room, but I’m often one of the most persistent. It’s been five months since the summer educator’s retreat in Ojai, which means it’s also December and that the close of the 2015 Fall semester has arrived.
Several times this semester I found myself feeling off-balance while teaching. It happened while teaching students and when facilitating professional development workshops for teachers. I can only think that – in a positive way – my experience at Ojai shook the confidence I felt in my teaching practice. Until now I haven’t been able to name what lay at the root of this feeling. But today, while listening several times over to Dr. Steven Emmanuel’s recorded presentation, “The Mindful Teacher”, one of the questions he posed suddenly made me realize what I had most certainly failed to grasp at the summer retreat in Ojia.
Dr. Emmanuel’s question: “What does my use of this particular [teaching] technique reveal about how I relate to students?” (emphasis added)
Although “The Mindful Teacher” is absolutely worth listening to in its entirety, in the segment from 11:40 to 14:50 specifically, Dr. Emmanuel poses several questions that helped me realize how “…technique can very easily become the sort of thing we hide behind. Or it may become a subtle form of control that minimizes and eliminates the element of risk, even as it purports to be done for the sake of the students.” The “risk” he’s alluding to is not the risk that a student will miss the point, but an avoidance of risk by the teacher to allay fears that he or she will lose control of the learning environment if there isn’t stringent adherence to a strategy or technique in a specific lesson plan.
This far removed from the summer retreat in Ojia, I’m now certain these were the very points Dr. Gopal Krishnamurthy was trying to guide me to as well. Sadly, last summer it was such a certainty in the quality and intention of my teaching technique that certainly blocked my ability to see the relevance of this point.
As I’ve tried to integrate ideas from the retreat into my teaching practice (especially with regard to facilitating professional development) another one of Dr. Emmanuel’s points seems especially relevant, “Mindful teachers use mindfulness to preserve the essential openness of the learning environment while giving it a vital focus.” It would seem rather obvious that a workshop or lesson needs a focus, and recently I’ve become far more interested in creating workshops around questions rather than objectives. This seems to help me maintain my intention to “preserve the essential openness” of the learning environment. However, I’m also aware that I’m still unskillful enough that I fall into doing more of a “think aloud” while walking folks through my inquiry into those questions. A fall-back position on strategy and technique? Hopefully at least a step in the right direction of risk for me, and toward openness for my students and participants.
I don’t think either Dr. Krishnamurthy or Dr. Emmanuel is insinuating that teaching tools or teacher training are unimportant or unnecessary, but rather they raise a valid concern that “mastery” of teaching technique has come to mean how a teacher uses teaching strategies, tools, and methods so that students reach predetermined outcomes/answers/conclusions.
Consequently when the description of “good” teachers focuses solely on what techniques the teacher chooses that are most effective at quantifying how many students produced a “correct” response, there is little opportunity (much less incentive or invitation) for a teacher to engage in reflection and self-discovery beyond whether a particular strategy was the right one to lead students to a correct answer. At a much deeper level Dr. Emmanuel asks us to consider what our choice of teaching technique says about our presence in the classroom, and even perhaps our perspective of teaching and learning as a whole.
Equally important, when administrator’s don’t value the time needed for teacher’s to engage in reflection and self-discovery as a valid part of a “good” teaching practice, it seems unlikely that teacher’s will engage students in self-reflection and self-inquiry.
I haven’t decided how to balance the qualitative with the quantitative in my teaching practice, so it would seem winter break will find me considering these ideas more deeply.
Thanks for reading!