Thursday, October 24, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 1

In my first post I mentioned my life in transition: transition from one country and culture to another, transition from a relatively well-paying job to what I hope will be only temporary joblessness, transition from ethnic singularity to diversity. Transitions seem to bring with them a certain opportunity to look back, to reassess, to reflect. Recently I have been reflecting about many things: about life, about hopes and desires, and about teaching.

Through trial and error, I have learned a lot about teaching Chinese students over the past ten years. I have learned much about teaching English over the past ten years. I have also learned a lot about the art of teaching itself, in all its nebulousness. Different methods, different styles, different activities―many have been attempted, many have failed, and a precious few have succeeded. Nevertheless, what I began to reflect on today is not so much about the practice of teaching itself, but rather about some truths that simply are. In this post I address what will likely be the first of three or four reflections.

Reflection 1: Living in a mystery

Teaching, like life, is something that reveals more of its mystery the longer one persists in it. Experience is wonderful, and it is said (as my more cliche-loving students like to remind me) that experience is the best teacher. After 11 or 12 years in the classroom (depending on how one calculates it), I know vastly more about managing a classroom, motivating students and effectively delivering lessons than I did as a 22 year old college graduate. Just a few years "in the trenches" can lead to more insights than an entire undergraduate education program, and a few more can sometimes even surpass a masters program. But something accompanies experience that eclipses improved technique and broader knowledge: the understanding that one does not really know as much as he or she thought.

As a young man I was armed with my Drake University education background, a resume that included stints in rural and urban summer camps, a year assisting in special education, and the certainty that I was about to change the world. I was young and impetuous, confident and arrogant. Now, 12 years later, having tasted both success and failure, having clicked with some students and having been woefully unable to connect with others, having helped some students to reach their goals and all but shedding tears over seeing some students have to give up their dreams, I emerge a still confident but much more humble educator than I once was.  Do I change the world? I hope so, one life at a time. Do I have the best ideas? I have some good ideas, but even the best ideas fall flat on the wrong days. Am I going to solve the educational needs of my students? I will certainly try to address them, but I won't always (and perhaps rarely) help as much as I or they would like. Will my students acquire a passion for learning? Some have, and I can remember each one by name. Others never saw the light.

I am still a relatively inexperienced father, my oldest son being only a month and a half past two years old. Despite this inexperience, I had a revelation one day in my living room, a revelation that I would wager most fathers before me have long since discovered. I was moving a coffee table (unrelated to the revelation) and thought, "I have read a lot of books and have talked to a lot of fathers, but I don't really know what I'm doing as a father. I'm just trying my best everyday. I'll bet that's what my father did, too. He didn't know everything or even THINK he knew everything, despite what my teenage brain may have thought. He knew he didn't know all that much, but he was doing his best with what he knew." I think it's the same with teaching. I've read a lot of books and journals, I've talked with other teachers, and I have a lot of tools I've developed, but when all is said and done, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, I'm really just trying my best to educate whomever will listen with whatever I have to offer. I can't but think that any honest teacher would say the same.

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