On Teaching


I walked into my first “academic” job interview (I was applying to be a tutor at the writing center on campus) with three prior qualifications (some might say, three prior convictions!) under my belt: First, I was an actor; second, I was a flight attendant; and third I was a mother.

That’s it. That was the sum total of my work experience.

Not being one to back away from a fight (that, and being an English major, which sets your bullshit-meter to high), I set about figuring out how to leverage these meager experiences in making my case to the hiring committee.

What, I thought to myself as I sat on the ’70s-orange-and-chrome waiting room seats, has motherhood taught me about being a teacher. Patience, organization, an infinite capacity to say “no,” the ability to add one more task to an already bursting to do list, reading a book upside down . . . were these real “skills?”

And what about my flight-attending? What could I use from there? Conflict management? Keeping three-year-olds occupied (and quiet!) on a transatlantic red-eye while their parents slept? Making coral lipstick work under harsh fluorescent lights . . . ?

I was fast coming to the conclusion that I had nothing.

It never occurred to me that I could write, that my 10 interminable years with the Wren & Martin (think Strunk and White, but with a plummy accent) might actually bear fruit. But that’s for another blog.

I pushed on.

Acting, yes acting! Surely that had some bearing on teaching. I had seen Good Will Hunting. I could recite O Captain, My Captain, I could stand on a table. With a little help. And a step stool.

I got this! Teaching as performance–THAT was going to be my thesis.

I got the job.

Not because of any compelling argument, but because then, as now, qualifying to be a tutor is one part giddy enthusiasm and one part having a pulse. I was qualified.

It got me thinking, though, about who my favorite teachers were and what they had that held my interest. What makes us want to watch and listen and think–even when the bell rings and the lights come up?

Of course there is an element of performance–pausing for effect, the modulation of voice to make people lean in, anaphora, any number of devices that draw us in and make us stay. But what is that one thing?

Eye contact.

Hold on, you might say, that’s the exact opposite of what we want in theatre. We don’t want to make eye contact, let the audience in, break the fourth wall etc. Yes, that’s true, but we do want the people on stage to make eye contact with each other, to stay in character, to live the words. It’s authenticity we’re after, and the eyes never lie.

Brené  Brown, vulnerability researcher and famous TED-talker, was recently asked what she thought made her a good presenter–she has, after all, given talks that have reached an audience of millions–and she had very interesting things to say: I don’t rehearse; I rarely allow my talks to be video taped; and I keep the house lights on.

Wait, what?

I was expecting her to say the exact opposite–that she prepares assiduously and attends to all the little details like lighting and camera angles and whatnot. But no. No rehearsals, no video tapes, and no darkness.

I leaned in.

“I want to be able to look someone in the eye. I want to speak to that one person. Tell her my story,” Brown says (and I’m paraphrasing here). When the house lights are dimmed, it’s as if there are no people there, just empty space.

It’s the same in a classroom. My best teaching moments have come when I’ve turned the powerpoint off and looked the students in the eyes. It’s the connection I’m after, and if I’m after it, so are they.

I am intrigued by this idea of teaching as connection. Not because it doesn’t make sense–it does, perfect sense–but because there is pretty much no mention of it in the literature on teaching–at least not in a pedagogical sense. Yes, there is great investment in “student engagement,” but we assign that responsibility to creative lesson plans and high-interest topics and multi-media projects. Nowhere does it tell us, teach us, how to personally engage students. In fact, we are often cautioned against personal connection–no hugs people!–against getting too close, against caring. It’s just not professional, we are told. It will color our judgment (an interesting idiom by the way, as if the best judgment is “colorless,” black and white, dispassionate); it will make us soft.

Progressive and critical scholars have written about this type of connection–Cariño (Valenzuela, 1999; Duncan-Andrade, 2006; Bartolome, 2008). It is the type of connection that comes from “authentic caring” about the whole student, not just the part that shows up (or not, as the case may be) to the classroom. This is an alien concept in public education, where home and school are neatly compartmentalized, and where educators feel, alternately, helpless and indifferent to what goes on outside the classroom walls.

Why do we not teach this–deliberately and systematically–as we do curricula and classroom management and pedagogy?

When I was a flight attendant, I was trained, very specifically, on how to use language that was respectful, that fostered empathy. I’m not kidding. We literally went to a language lab, stuck a pair of headphones on and worked through different scenarios, being prompted to use language in very specific ways.

Where is this training in teacher preparation programs? I’m not saying there is no “inadvertent” training in socio-emotional connection, the happy by product of really good teachers modeling effective practice, but it is inchoate and unconsidered.

I could have really used a more instructive approach (as I would have with motherhood as well, but that’s another story!), one that made me look at, very deliberately, how I was connecting with my students, how I was making eye contact and heart contact, an approach that legitimized the importance of relationship in the classroom.

I think we can do better to understand and teach a pedagogy of connection–and I speak here not of the caricature kindergarten teacher, but of a deeper connection that says–you matter to me; I am paying attention; your failure is my failure. It is connection that is sincere and respectful, an authentic caring characterized by a “moral ethic” rather than an aesthetic one characterized by “attention to things and ideas” (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002).

My hope is that we rethink the way we prepare teachers, the way we talk about “best practices” in the classroom, to include not only the “things and ideas” of teaching but also the people and relationships.

Photo Credit: http://scrap-a-lot.blogspot.com/

Categories: Reflections

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1 reply

  1. I absolutely love this post! Yes, it is about embodiment and pedagogy and it is not much talked about. I think there is some work in feminist pedagogy that hints at this, but until recently, the body has been left out of the classroom. This wonderfully written. Boosted me up after the 10 straight day of rain.

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