Know thyself, teach better

An effective teacher is selective about choosing strategies and methods that 'reveal rather than conceal' her authentic teaching self.

From infusing creativity into the classroom to maintaining positive discipline to catalysing students to excel, a plethora of articles and workshops outline useful strategies for teachers to make learning more engaging and enduring.  However, no article or book or seminar for that matter, can necessarily distil or pinpoint the essence of great teaching.  

Because great teaching transcends any technique or set of techniques.  As educationist and author, Parker J Palmer contends in The Courage to Teach, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique: good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.”  At the same time, we cannot dismiss the relevance of techniques.  But an effective teacher is selective about choosing strategies and methods that ‘reveal rather than conceal’ her authentic teaching self. So, good teaching can assume myriad forms.

When I look back on my own academic journey, a handful of teachers, whom I would possibly call master teachers (with no reference to gender), left an indelible imprint on me. And, each teacher or mentor, as I prefer to call them, made a distinctive impact in his or her own way. In fact, a couple of them continue to galvanise me with their continual and prolific writings and publications.

My most inspiring teachers had their own teaching styles and vastly different personalities.  A high school teacher motivated and touched me deeply by going the extra mile to help me on one occasion.  In college, a professor coaxed me to extend my thinking and helped me push the envelope of my ability.  As a doctoral student, an erudite professor was extremely prompt in giving feedback while his more absent-minded colleague took weeks to return a term paper.  Yet, I savoured their astute comments with equal relish.  

Sense of personal identity

Why do I cherish these teachers even after two or three decades?  What hold do they have on me?  And how did they weave their magic?  Palmer argues that good teachers have one common characteristic wherein “a strong sense of personal identity infuses their work.”  In fact, he sums it up pithily as “we teach who we are.”  

Besides deep knowledge of their subject and students, good teachers tend to know themselves at deep levels.  When reviewing, revising or reforming education, the typical questions that are posed involve “what,” “how” and “why.”  So, discussions revolve around subject matter, effective methods and the purpose of teaching.  But we very rarely dwell on the “who” question —“who is the self that teaches?”

A compelling teacher, according to Palmer, probes his or her “inner landscape” cognitively, affectively and spiritually.  As a teacher, how do I conceptualise teaching, learning and my subject?  How does knowledge of a specific concept alter my worldview?  And will it impact my students the same way?  How do I feel about teaching and my students?  How do my students feel when I teach?  Does my vocation give me a sense of purpose or help me feel “connected with the largeness of life”?

The more insight teachers have of their internal worlds, the more adept at teaching they will be.  Palmer asserts that the purpose of education is “to guide students on an inner journey toward more truthful ways of seeing and being in the world.”  Thus, only by traversing his or her “inner terrain” can a teacher truly guide students through their own private sojourns.

Further, teaching is a continual journey.  No matter how experienced or knowledgeable a teacher is, every time he walks into a classroom, he is starting anew.  Ultimately, teaching is about connecting with students so that they can form linkages with a subject.  And, as students change every semester or year, teachers have to keep forging and renewing relationships.  Good teachers also have their share of bad days and have to contend with disengaged or intractable students.  However, these challenges only spur them to keep seeking and growing as individuals and teachers.

So, how do teachers find their authentic teaching selves?  Palmer confesses that there is no ready-made solution except the old-fashioned methods of contemplation, communing with nature, conversing with a friend, journaling and reading.  He also acknowledges the unfortunate fact that education, from the earliest grades, has degenerated into a “fearful enterprise.”  Besides toxic levels of competition and pressure on kids, teachers are also burdened by unrealistic parental expectations, stultified syllabi, a lack of autonomy, heavy teaching loads and unsympathetic management.  

However, while Palmer recognises these lacunae, he emphasises that teachers must also devote their energies to “exorcising the inner demons.” While some of our fears may be abetted by external forces, we have to examine whether our fears are clouding our “capacity for connectedness.” Likewise, if teachers try to understand the angst that often underlies recalcitrant or indifferent behaviour in students, apathy and misbehaviour may reduce thereby creating a more conducive atmosphere for teacher and students alike.

Ultimately, inspiring teaching is about creating a safe community that seeks truth, in its various forms. But, as Palmer observes, only if, we, teachers, “are in communion with ourselves can we find community with others.”  As another Teachers’ Day dawns on us, let us first pause—instead of merely celebrating our teachers for what they do, let us salute them for the individuals they are.  

(The author is director, PRAYATNA)

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