Innovative teaching requires the courage to take risks and to try out lessons and techniques that may fail.
The worst flops are sometimes the ones that happen on the first day of class. What a way to start a relationship with a group of students.
A couple of years ago, my faculty mentor told me that she had helped her students to take ownership over their classroom environments by having them choose how they wanted their desks arranged during her lessons. At the start of Day One, she projected a slide on the screen asking students to rearrange the classroom however they liked. She left the class and said she’d return when they had completed the job. When she got back the desks were arranged in all manner of patterns and the students were pleased to have been asked for their input.
I thought this was a great idea, so I tried it in one of my first-year Writing for Marketing classes that year. I left the room and watched, out of sight, from the door and waited for several minutes for something to happen. Nothing did. I went back in again and told the students I’d give them a few more minutes.
As I walked out, a flat and unenthusiastic voice said from behind me, “We’ve decided we’d like a traditional desk arrangement.”
My heart sank. Advertising students were known for their energy and creativity and this was the tone that was being set for the rest of the semester. Not only that, but my new students seemed to think their teacher’s first creative idea of the year was dumb.
I didn’t get it. The technique had been a big hit for three of my mentor’s marketing communications classes. Why didn’t it work for me?
After reading Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, I finally get it. Being an effective teacher is not about technique. While it is important, the best techniques in the world won’t work unless a teacher possesses a connectedness to him or herself, the students, and to the subjects he or she teaches. This is the premise of The Courage to Teach.
“Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness,” Palmer writes. “They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so students can learn to weave a world for themselves.”
Indeed, students told Palmer that their own superb teachers weren’t great because of the methods they employed but because of their passion and their ability to connect to the “inward, living core of students’ lives”.
So my mentor was able to pull off the Day One class arrangement trick, but I cannot. I must use methods that come from who I am as a person and educator. To know those techniques, I must understand my inner landscape.
Palmer points out that techniques are not always employed consciously. For example, a while ago, when he took over another professor’s class as a guest lecturer, the regular professor was amazed at his technique of saying, “Please,” when students put up their hands to offer a comment and, “Thank you,” afterwards.
Palmer hadn’t consciously demonstrated this courtesy and hadn’t thought of it as a technique. For him, it was an unconscious courtesy to express gratitude because the lively discussion couldn’t have occurred without the students’ contributions. Indeed, for him, this thoughtful expression was part of who he is.
Before I started studying towards my Masters of Adult Education one year ago, I expressed disdain for scholarly study of educational theory. I figured that if I needed to solve a problem in the classroom, I had plenty of wise colleagues who could provide solutions. And they did. Often. And most of the time those solutions worked.
But I recently realized that my colleagues had those solutions at their finger tips because, unlike me, they had done their research; they had read the theory. They had spent years pursuing higher education.
Me? I was a mere poacher.
Nonetheless, I’m grateful to them for patiently giving me the Coles Notes to surviving my first years as an educator. And I’m grateful to Parker J. Palmer for this new insight into myself.