Saturday, June 7, 2014

Teaching With Integrity

One quirk of a teacher's world is that December 31st is only the end of the year in an honorary sense.  We all know very well that the year really ends in June.

This means that our new year's eve is two months long, and like the evening of December 31, it is a time marked by celebration of the year that has ended, anticipation of the year to come, and also introspection.  I have now completed my 5th full year of teaching.  During the year, I made the transition from 'young, single teacher' to 'young, married teacher'.  I also spent this past year teaching in the light of Master's courses, which I started last summer.  With graduation past, grading mostly finished, and only one round of presentations left to hear, I cannot help but wonder what I, myself, have learned this year.  Indeed, I believe I learned more in this year of teaching than in any other since that dreaded first year.  This year, I was challenged to rediscover my identity in the classroom, a process which has been crucial to my integrity as a teacher.

Last summer, I read The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer.  In this book, Palmer carries forward threads of thought started in To Know As We Are Known, perhaps his most famous work, and certainly a favorite of my headmaster and principal.  Palmer argues that before a teacher can know his students and engage them in the dance of truth in a "subject-centered classroom", a teacher must first know himself.  He must teach in line with his values and gifts.  This, by Palmer's definition is integrity.  Integrity is lost when a teacher tries to be something they are not.  It occurred to me during the course of this year that I have not been teaching with integrity to who I am.  In fact, I've worked very hard to suppress who I am.

Who am I?  I am a performer.  I love doing voices, I love giving speeches, I love making up songs, I love telling stories, I love playing characters, I love parody.  This is me.  And over the past two years in the classroom, I had actively been fighting back that side of myself.  I rationalized: "I'm too weird, my students won't get me"; "My students should be the ones 'on stage', I should be behind the scenes"; "A constructivist classroom is best practice, anyway."

Like any of the lies we tell ourselves, mine were injected with half-truths: Yes, I am weird.  No, not all of my students will "get" my weirdness.  Yes, my students do need to be "on stage", and no, I shouldn't make myself the star of the show.  Yes, constructivist learning is an important life skill and no, I shouldn't just tell my students what to think.

Unfortunately, I was marching into my constructivist classroom having left behind my weapons, my shield, my helmet, my armor, and ultimately, myself.  That was not always the case, though!  One story of many comes to mind: In my 2nd year of teaching, I staged a performance in the classroom where I interviewed myself (in a pre-recorded video clip, wearing a cowboy hat and speaking in a bad Texan accent) on the Mexican-American War.  I am pretty sure my students thought I was a little crazy, but to this day that class environment remains the best I've worked in.  Maybe because I was being authentic, the students felt at ease being authentic, themselves.  I'm not sure when, but somewhere along the road, self-consciousness sunk its talons into me and I lost my authenticity.  

While I'll grant that I shouldn't always be in the spotlight, that my classroom should not be "The Gibby Show", I absolutely do need to be on stage, performing.  If my job consists primarily of supervising my students at work or answering questions as they come up, I'll wither.  I know.  I have withered.  Worse still, my students won't invest their fullest.  Students have a radar for B.S.  They might not even completely realize that what they are seeing is a facade, but something--some intangible thing--will strike them as not-quite-right.  It's the same reason why I can't just waltz into the classroom and do a spot-on impression on some of my own excellent teachers from my school days (which, trust me, I am perfectly capable of doing) and expect to impact my students: it's just not me.

To use a metaphor close to my heart as a singer, I am the high tenor voice.  Everyone hears the high tenor part, everyone knows it is there, and if it is done well, the audience will "ooh" and "ah".  But the high tenor part mostly functions to make the lead singer sound better.  Without the lead, the high tenor is stranded, without a melody to attach to.  It's precisely why Art Garfunkel's solo career was unsuccessful, while Paul Simon made a name for himself on his own.  That's me as a teacher.  I need to be visible, need to perform, need to do my (quirky) thing.  At the end of the day, though, it's about bringing out the best in my students.  They are Paul Simon, I am Art Garfunkel.  I'm pitching in the high notes until they embark on a solo career or find a new band to be a part of.  

I need to embrace this about myself.  In March, I asked my Juniors to give me honest feedback on my teaching.  One boy said he wished I would lecture more often, and his classmates all made noises of agreement at this statement.  At the time, I mentally dismissed it with the excuse of "my students just want to be told what to think."  However, in giving it some thought, and weighing it back against what I'd so admired in Palmer, I realized my student was touching upon something more true than he perhaps knew.  

My resolution for the new year is not to lecture more.  Nor is it to do more independent learning activities.  My resolution for next year is simply to teach with integrity.  To teach not according to who I think I should be or who I think my students want me to be, but according to who I really am.  This means letting my creativity roam free, letting it take me where it takes me.  God gave me these unique gifts for a reason, and if I am not using them in my teaching, they become little more than decoration.  I look back not with regret, but with gratitude at what I've learned.  I look ahead not with trepidation, but with excitement at what the new year holds.  

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