September 6, 2013

Back to School: Care for a Cookie? ~ Noel McLellan

Photo: Sprocketholes

Teaching is a questionable undertaking.

Most of the teachers I have known have good hearts and are willing to work hard, often for few tangible rewards, to help their students succeed. No matter how rewarding, teaching is a challenging endeavor under the best circumstances, which rarely come together.

Many teachers work in very difficult systems, and loss of heart is common.

But that’s not what makes it questionable. It doesn’t matter if it’s difficult or if we’re not sure whether we’re making a difference. Teachers know that teaching is worthwhile, no matter the challenges.

What is questionable is our assumption that we know what we are teaching.

If we think of teaching as simply passing knowledge from one person to another, it’s a fairly simple matter, like making a cookie and handing it to someone to eat. We know how to spell, so we teach someone, and then they can spell.

That’s a good thing in itself, but that’s not all that happens. Teaching is a social interaction that taps into some of the most volatile forces embedded in society. So much is transmitted and communicated beyond the facts and figures of what is being taught on the surface.

It looks like a cookie, but it’s a nuclear bomb.

All social interactions have invisible dynamics in that we are always communicating more than the simple content of our words. Our attitude, outlook, bearing, eyes, tone and the whole environment determine the feeling of the interaction.

In the teaching relationship those dynamics are heightened. The hierarchy of teacher and student contains a treasury of unspoken implications. Foremost among these is that the student must be open, on some level, in order to receive whatever is being taught. What comes with openness is vulnerability.

Even just showing up in the role of a student invokes a degree of vulnerability. Being a learner implies that you have something to learn—you don’t know something, and that makes you humble and soft. The student is vulnerable to the teacher and the environment, and this meeting in the space of vulnerability brings a quality of intimacy to the relationship.

In this intimate space of communication, many lessons are being transmitted. These are lessons of culture, values, how we are as people interacting, assumptions about human nature and society, and perhaps most importantly, how to relate with that feeling of vulnerability itself.

Knowingly or not, through our example, we are modeling and teaching how to be as human beings.

This is the inner curriculum, and although it is probably more important than the outer curriculum of academics in shaping the character of individuals and influencing the direction of society, it goes largely unacknowledged in the realm of education.

This is why “teaching” is questionable.

If we acknowledge the influence of the inner curriculum, teaching without intentionally examining and developing it is a failure to acknowledge the true influence of education. It’s unclear what we and the whole environment are actually transmitting, though it most predictably defaults to the status quo.

On the other hand, there is something unsettlingly presumptuous about the notion of intentionally shaping the “character” and fundamental outlook of students. What credentials do we have to do so? What training have we gone through, and who agrees on the intended outcomes?

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Assistant Ed.: Moira Madden/Ed: Sara Crolick

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Noel McLellan