Teachers and teaching
Isn't "love" too strong a word to describe a teacher's attitude?
No, Gerard, it's not. At some point in your life you discover that it is love that counts. Love is the energy that binds us together in any creative process. In the seventies, a young teacher with a family, I did some translating, mostly on education, to supplement the meagre salary of a teacher "interí" in an Institut. One of the books I translated was Postman and Weintgarner's Teaching as a Subversive Activity, which became very popular with teachers for a while. I don't remember their exact words, but love and being loved as marks of good teaching was a concept that stuck with me.
Teaching as a "subversive" activity?
The school was very much under question in those days. It was also the time of the great educational utopias. Of course, that provocative title never found its way into Spain, where it was published as La enseñanza como actividad crítica, which was much milder but still brave in those days. A whole page on dictator generals and mind control was totally censored as it was the apple with an exploding bomb inside that appeared in the original cover. Another book in the same vein I remember translating was Goodman's The Compulsory Miseducation, as well as a few psychology works such as Maslow's Towards a Psychology of Being among others. I did a lot of reading and thinking on education then.
You taught in high schools for twenty years. Do you remember a day when you felt particularly happy after a lesson?
Many. One that comes to my mind now is an 8.00 o'clock class on a Tuesday with 14-year olds. I was in such low spirits that I was ready to quit (in fact, I had started looking for another job). Constant interruption, conversations, latecomers, objects flying around, nobody listening, ... Sound familiar? At a certain point I slumped on my chair and closed my mouth. It took a while, but then they began to "see" me there and slowly quietened down. Almost without realising it I told them that I didn't think I was cut out for the job, that I was thinking of quitting.
I wasn't acting. I meant every word of it. I looked them in the eyes. Suddenly they saw me as a real person, somebody who suffered, not so unlike them, and they reacted with concern. I even told them about what I believed I could or should do. And they joined in whith me! From that moment, with the help of one or two of them, the class turned into an organized exchange of opinions and advice with lots of "should" thrown in. They were speaking to me! It was beautiful, and it was real!
What is good teaching for you?
If we restrict teaching to a good command of communication techniques and of group management added to a solid grasp of the contents of the curriculum, we are falling short of it. These things are necessary, but we can have them and still be unable to go beyond some mediocre teaching. Technique alone never made a good painter, poet, actor or musician. Art goes into the equation. And good teaching is an art.
I'm not sure I follow. Are you saying that I should rephrase my question and ask what makes good art?
Precisely. Not long ago I read in The Elegance of the Hedgehog that "Art is life played to other rhythms". Of course, the rhythms are individual, unique to each of us. The artist takes a risk when sharing them, because what he is really exposing to us is not his technique. He is exposing himself, herself, making his thoughts, his feelings and his deeper vision of life visible to others. And there is always a response to authenticity, to good art.
What are then the marks of a good teacher for you?
A passion for excellence in what s⁄he does. Unrelenting compromise. Care for others. Authority. I've seen it. Here, there, in teachers of different subjects, in different contexts and countries.
Wait a moment! You've just mentioned authority. Did you mean what I think you meant?
Yes, Laura. The painter is responsible for putting an idea on canvas. The writer for putting a plot, ideas, a "trama" on paper. The teacher will always be responsible for generating a learning-system in class. That is his main job. Artists use whatever resources -instruments, techniques, people- around them plus a lot of focus and effort to make something emerge from a previous nothing. Art is hard work, concentration, never placid, easily let go.
I thought we wanted autonomous learning in class.
Yes. And this means that the learner takes "responsibility" for learning. But he'll never go for it unless the teacher takes responsibility for his teaching first. Not just token, but full responsibility. Learner-centered teaching has nothing to do with giving up authority in class. Just the opposite. The best teachers I've seen in action always had a highly organized class around them. Those I've known to create the best autonomous learning environments see authority as a priority.
What kind of authority are we talking about then?
The one that comes from inner strength, from compromise, from taking risks, one that rarely requires raising your voice, though this may be necessary sometimes.This is the kind of authority that gets the best results. Teaching is tough. So is playing the Fugue in A minor. But if the player is afraid and the teacher hides behind the curriculum, both block their rhythms and fail to share their experience with others.
You have been talking about teaching but not much about "language teaching".
The two are inseparable, but "teaching" comes first. Good portraits or landscapes are the result of good "painting", not the other way round. I heard a teacher say once full of pride, "I'm a linguist, a technician. It`s not my job to worry whether students learn." What rubbish! No painter, writer or musician considers himself a "technician", no matter how much command of the techniques he has.