Saturday, June 29, 2019

Eight Weeks Of Summer: Influences

This post is week 2 of 8 in the 8 Weeks of Summer Blog Challenge for educators.

Well, actually, I'm a week late because I was on vacation where the mosquitoes are stronger than the wifi. But I'm going to stick with the exercise anyway, because I find it interesting.

Here's the Week #2 prompt. As always, I'll answer for my previous pre-retirement self.

What has contributed to the educator you are today?

I'm going to skip over some of the obvious factors, like former teachers who had a profound impact on me, and writers about education who directly affected my thinking about classroom and content. Those are all hugely important, but I think we too often think of the growth of a teacher as a linear progression, that proto-teachers learn from teachers and read about teacher things and take teacher classes and that all leads directly to who they are as a teacher. 

That's fine, but I think there's way more to it than that. Teaching is highly personal work, and it's simply impossible to teach effectively without bringing who you are as a person into the classroom. That doesn't mean teachers should be unprofessional ("My boyfriend dumped me last night, so we're not going to have class today"), but it does mean that all the other things we are matter when we hit the room.

So here are what some of those factors are for me.

Student teaching. Yes, I know what I just said. But for me it wasn't just the pedagogical and content aspects of student teaching; it's that I came from a mostly white small town background and student taught in Cleveland Heights with rooms of almost entirely non-white students. It was a clear signal that there were many things that I didn't have a clue about that I needed to have clues about.

Performing. Mind you, I am not an extrovert, not a stage guy. But I've been playing music my whole life up in front of audiences, and that turned out to be hugely integral to my classroom work. In particular, learning to read the room and sense whether you're doing great or bombing.

And while I have done a lot of different types of performing (three hours of oompah-band for a slightly sloppy Oktoberfest crowd, anyone), my heart has always been in traditional jazz. And here's the thing about jazz-- you need a plan, a beat, a progression of chords, a sense of where you and the people you're playing with are going, but if you have a precise note-for-note plan, you're just sucking the life out of it. If you aren't free and flexible enough to respond to the moment, then you're missing the very best parts, the whole point. That is teaching.

Likewise, I've spent a lot of time directing theater, both music and stage, and that idea-- that you need a direction and a sense of the bigger thing that you're  part of, but you also have to be open to respond and collaborate-- it's there, too. And when you're in charge, you cannot try to micro-manage every second of your cast's performance.

Phone bank. I've written before about my time as a catalog phone order taker. I was lousy at the job, and it underlined for me a lot about the cost of having to show up and do poorly at something day after day. It affected how I treated my lower-performing students.

Marriage, divorce, singlehood, marriage. My own relationship struggles were useful in connecting to the issues of my students and their families. Likewise, parenting made a difference. Not that I'm advocating doing any of these things to build your teaching tool box.  Nor do I suggest that you share the play by play with your students. Just that even these very personal experiences can do a great deal toward building your classroom toolbox.

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