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* the joys & sorrows of being a teacher

August 21, 2015

If there’s something genetic or transmissible about teaching, I have it. A lot of it. Both my mom and dad were teachers, my brother was a teacher (now a school administrator), my wife was a teacher (also joy v sorrow masksnow a school administrator), two of my sister-in-laws either are or were teachers, one of my brother-in-laws greatly enjoys tutoring he does as a volunteer, my father-in-law was a teacher, my mother-in-law helped establish and run a preschool. And I have relatives in Norway who are teachers and school administrators, and the list goes on.

I’ve been blessed in life to have been able to learn from and sometimes help a variety of gifted teachers. This included my dad, who, because I was going to a very small school for missionary and other Third Culture Kids, was my English teacher every year of my time in high school. I have been told multiple times by classmates from that school that they still feel my father was (one of) the best teacher they ever had in their education, almost every one who has gone through college, quite a few through grad school. Did his teaching gifts pass on down to me? I wish!

I took a quite convoluted road to becoming a teacher as I spent quite a bit of time, money and energy working my way through both bachelors and masters programs in engineering. But then, suddenly, half-way through my masters degree I had a startling insight. I wasn’t interested in engineering as I was interested in the interface between engineering and people! I excitedly told this to my advisor who, with no excitement whatsoever pointed to the building behind him out the window and said, “That’s education. You’d do that over there in that building. You are half-way through your Masters degree so just finish it. And then you can figure out the ‘what comes next?’ part of it all. It turned out to be great advice.

I sort of backed into the field of education through training I started to do. With several very gifted Malagasy educators from whom I learned an enormous amount of things, working with very smart Malagasy people, many who had not been able to experience a western education do didn’t have literacy skills, also from whom I learned a great deal. And once I started down that road of trying to be involved in helping people learn, I was hooked.

I ended going back to school again and actually ended up in the department in the other building my engineering advisor had pointed to 10 years earlier. While the road was a bit (too) confusing for awhile, it’s now been 15 years that I’ve been seeking to earn a living in higher education, in the “academy” if you will. Or at least on its fringes.

I’d love to write of all my accomplishments doing this, but the pathway has been a bit more complicated than that. In fact it has led from several years of part-time to 10 years of full-time to now 5 years and counting of part-time teaching. Let’s just say that for me, anyway, higher education has proved to be a many splendored thing. While my hope 15 years ago, when I started a tenure track position, was to have been securely tenured and hopefully promoted by now, that did not turn out to be my story. But I still teach. Or try hard to. When people ask me if I teach, I often answer, “Allegedly–not all my students would agree with this statement!” Even the students who appreciate my efforts are more than willing to share with me areas I’m not as strong in–a question I ask up to several times each course I teach. And with by now a lot of students’ input, I have gotten better. Much more slowly than I’d prefer, but moving in the right direction.

For me it’s been much more of learning an evolving art than a practice, achieving better results through lots of trial that ends up with too much error! But then as a master teacher/trainer who I respect greatly just shared on a Facebook post,
“In Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Niels Bohr’s words: ‘An expert is someone who has made all possible mistakes in one field and there are no more to make.’ A lot of us are closing in on that elusive goal!!!!”

As Parker Palmer (2007), one of the most influential educators I know, describes in his book, The Courage to Teach,
“there are times in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy…[when] teaching is the finest work I know. But at other moments…my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham…this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well!” (pp. 1-2).

The irony of it all is, as with many people, if you put heart and soul into an effort you (mostly) love and feel called to for an extended period of time, learn from what doesn’t work, work with what does, you get better at it. I am in fact doing some of my best teaching these days. In my case it all started for me in Madagascar, slowly figuring out how to provide very high quality learning opportunities to some very poor folks sitting on woven mats outside, under the shade of the biggest tree around (generally a mango tree), no electricity for miles. Some of them people who really had no time to waste, as they were living that close to the edge of survival. It has evolved to the realities of technology equipped higher education classrooms, multiple learning management systems (Blackboard and Moodle for example) and some fairly complex online learning opportunities and challenges, all related to the fields of leadership and management. Mostly for smart, experienced and way too busy graduate students who are also working full-time as they work on their Masters degree(s). And at times, even with folks located around the world.

So for me helping people learn valuable things is my calling. And it is also like what Palmer describes above. And, like I experienced with my calling to work some of Madagascar’s “poorest of the poor,” there are joys, yes, many of them. And there are also sorrows, more than I wish. But I keep on trying to learn from them, to make use of the concept of “mo’ bettah.” That as I move forward, I continue to get better. And if not, then it’s time to find something else to do.

But till then, I, like so many in my family, am a teacher.

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