A Bittersweet Endeavor

With the end of this challenging academic year approaching, I thought I’d replay a blog post from December 2018. While it echoes back to a time and place before the pandemic, some of the sentiments still apply today.

The semester ended last week and my Facebook feed has been filled with colleagues who are posting requests from students who are asking for grade adjustments, deadline leniency and emotional support. Finals week is always an interesting and challenging time of the semester and I see my colleagues expressing their frustrations, stresses and joys online. Since I know these colleagues offline too, I know that many share posts that don’t really reflect their inner philosophies about teaching. For example, one colleague presents himself as a hardened curmudgeon but I know his students see him as being much warmer and supportive than his online persona would suggest. It’s a stressful time of the year for teachers and students and I’m learning that we all handle that stress differently. Some use social media to work through their emotions by sharing snarky retorts. I guess it’s the 21st Century way of letting off some steam.

Interestingly, it’s also a time of celebration. In addition to being the holiday season, this is the time of year when many college campuses hold their fall commencement ceremonies. After years of support and advisement, college faculty get to see their students walk across the stage, receive their diplomas and move on to their next phase of life. I’m sure every educator has a story of some student who faced adversity and persevered. Commencement ceremonies offer a distinct endpoint for that journey and an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our work. Not surprisingly, some of the same colleagues who are sharing their teaching frustrations online are also posting photos of themselves standing proudly with students in commencement robes. It’s a curious mix.

In the midst of the stress of finals week and the joys of commencement, however, I received an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education publicizing a research brief that examined how faculty view their work, their profession and the leadership at their institutions. I won’t dig into the leadership part here but I’m excited about the findings with regard to teaching. After surveying nearly 1,000 collegiate faculty from across the country, the Chronicle found that almost 91% report “being satisfied with teaching students” and over 98% believe that their teaching “benefits students and their lives.” The data also show that 68% of faculty see teaching as being harder work than it used to be.

In a lot of ways, I see the Chronicle research represented in my colleagues’ posts. Teaching is hard. And stressful. And time consuming. And emotionally draining. And I see all of that captured on my Facebook feed.

But teaching is also satisfying. And rewarding. And impactful. And I see that conveyed through my colleagues’ posts, too.

Teaching can be a bittersweet endeavor. I think Parker Palmer captures this the best in his book Courage to Teach. Citing a Hasidic tale, Palmer writes:

We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.”

I’m sure there are lots of ways to interpret this quote, but Palmer wisely connects it to our work as teachers. In my mind, I see the “dust and gold” as reminders of the difficult and joyful duality of our roles. But maybe you don’t need a coat with two pockets to visualize this. Maybe you just need a Facebook account.

On Appreciation

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States and I’m seeing my social media feeds filled with reminders to let teachers know how much they’re appreciated. I’ve also seen a number of my teacher friends change their profile pictures to include specialized “Teacher Appreciation” frames and banners. Additionally, a bunch of businesses are offering special discounts for teachers as a way to show their appreciation. For example, a teacher can get a free McFlurry from McDonalds on Tuesday May 4. While the day may be “Star Wars Day” to some, it’s National Teachers Day to those of us in the education world.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “appreciation” lately. In a conversation recently, a friend said that the word “appreciation” has taken on more of an amorous tone with teenagers. I don’t know adolescents have co-opted or repurposed the word, but saying “I appreciate you” now means “I REALLY like you.” As in “like you like you.” So, I did some digging. While I couldn’t find any confirmation on Urban Dictionary, I did find numerous definitions on Dictionary.com.

Appreciation (noun)

*gratitude; thankful recognition: They showed their appreciation by giving him a gold watch.
*the act of estimating the qualities of things and giving them their proper value.
*clear perception or recognition, especially of aesthetic quality: a course in art appreciation.
*an increase or rise in the value of property, goods, etc.
*critical notice; evaluation; opinion, as of a situation, person, etc.
*a critique or written evaluation, especially when favorable.

Mixed in with really important words like “gratitude” and “thankful” are words like “critique” and “evaluation.” I don’t want to speak for all teachers, but if I’m guessing that receiving a critical email from a parent wouldn’t be the ideal way to celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week. So, I thought I’d offer a better option to clarify what teachers need right now. And then I realized that I already had.

A few months ago, I wrote a post titled Practice Gratitude. In that post, I wrote:

“I’m going to urge you to do something even more important: Practice gratitude. Think about all of those amazing teachers who have influenced you and helped you become the person you are today. Maybe you remember that fourth grade teacher who helped you practice your multiplication tables or that high school English teacher who gave such detailed feedback that you blossomed as a writer. Or maybe you remember that coach who spent hours throwing pitch after pitch so you could master your swing. Or maybe you’re thinking about the Biology teacher who helped you with that science fair project or the social studies teacher who fostered your love of history. Whoever you remember, now is the time to let them know. Practice gratitude. Say thanks. Let them know the impact they made in your life.

Here’s one of the toughest parts about the “ethos of care” aspect of the teaching profession. Care is not a tangible entity. We can’t capture care in a bottle or detect it with any scientific instrument. So, while teachers are tapping into their deepest reserves of care to help their students (and others) through this pandemic, the impacts of care may be felt but they are not easily observed, even by the teachers offering it. And that’s why practicing gratitude is so important right now. It lets teachers know the impact of their work. Gratitude can make the invisible visible. It uncovers what is felt but cannot be seen. Gratitude can reify care.

The trick with gratitude is that it benefits the one offering gratitude as much as the one receiving it. So, while your words may be helping a favorite teacher get through a difficult time, you’ll also reap the benefits. At least that’s what the research from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley says. So, even if you’re having a tough time navigating the pandemic yourself, practicing gratitude may help you, too.”

So, while businesses are offering discounted memberships or free tacos or complimentary milkshakes as a way to show teachers how much they’re appreciated, the most meaningful way to show a teacher they’re appreciated is just to say “Thanks!”

Teaching as Improvisation

While I enjoy watching live musicals and plays, I’ve honestly never considered acting in one myself. The thought of standing on a stage and reciting rehearsed lines with a bunch of other actors sends pangs of anxiety through my body. Thinking back to my teacher preparation program, I remember being required to take an introductory theater class before being able to enroll in my methods courses. I was undergraduate physics major and I recall leaving a class on statistical mechanics and running across campus to the arts building so I could make my theater class on time. While running the several blocks between the buildings, I also had to mentally shift my brain. After learning all sorts of crazy calculus to determine the probability of the state of an electron, I had to shift my brain so I could be prepared for whatever the theater class would throw me that day. In one class, we were blindfolded and given musical instruments so we could learn to communicate to one another without words. On another day, we were assigned songs for which we were asked to hastily create our own musical videos which we had to perform before the end of class. I remember jumping around to George Michael’s Faith with three or four classmates in a scene depicting a disreputable faith healer. As part of the final exam in that course, I awkwardly stumbled through an improvised dialogue with a classmate. At the time, I had no idea what I was doing in that class. Physics was governed by principles, laws and theories drawn from the natural world. My theater class was absolutely unpredictable and chaotic. While the arts and physics buildings were only separated by a handful of blocks on campus, they seemed to exist in completely different worlds in my mind.

And now, they don’t as much, at least not from a teaching perspective. A colleague shared an article recently titled “Creative Teaching: Collaborative Discussion as Disciplined Improvisation.” The article isn’t new (it appeared in Educational Researcher in 2004) but it does provide a new way for me to describe the type of classroom environment I hope to foster through my teaching. The author, R. Keith Sawyer, offers “teaching as disciplined improvisation” as a metaphor to describe the flexible, yet structured dance that “creative teachers” play when supporting classroom discussion to foster student understanding. Drawing on sociocultural views of teaching and learning, Sawyer writes:

The sociocultural perspective implies that the entire classroom is improvising together; and it holds that the most effective learning results when the classroom proceeds in an open, improvisational fashion, as children are allowed to experiment, interact, and participate in the collaborative construction of their own knowledge. In improvisational teaching, learning is a shared social activity, and is collectively managed by all participants, not only the teacher. In improvising, the teacher creates a dialogue with the students, giving them freedom to creatively construct their own knowledge, while providing the elements of structure that effectively scaffold that co-constructive process” (p. 14).

While my experiences as an undergraduate physics student seemed so far from that theater class at the time, maybe the goal for taking that class was to help me see that to be effective I needed to stop seeing teaching as a scripted, predictable experience. To foster student-centered learning that reflects constructivist perspectives on learning, I need to be willing to lean into the sometimes chaotic and unpredictable nature of teaching.

Clarity is Kind

I can give pretty direct feedback on student work. While I consistently provide “Glows and Grows” to students to balance areas of strength with areas for growth, I find that students often bristle with how directly I communicate the feedback I provide. I preach “leading with empathy” but often forget how candid I can be when offering suggestions for improvement. In fact, one former student communicated my directness in a post on Rate My Professor:

Dr. Dreon teaches in an unconventional manner which may benefit some, but for me it was challenging…. His feedback is very blunt and to the point, so be prepared for that.

Needless to say, that student didn’t rate me very highly in terms of instructor quality.

To my own defense, I’m honestly not motivated by hurting anyone’s feelings. I don’t use putdowns in my feedback or call my students names or anything. I also don’t see myself as one of those people who elevates his own ego by diminishing others. Instead, I subscribe to the Brené Brown mantra: “Clarity is kind.” Applied to my teaching, I try to provide clear, focused feedback for improvement. In my mind, that kind of feedback will better support students’ growth and success. It can often be difficult for my students to hear, but it’s in their best interest.  But my students don’t always see that as being very kind.

But sometimes, the “clarity is kind” practice can lead to unintended outcomes. This semester, I’ve been working with a group of graduate students in one of our doctoral classes. After providing feedback on revisions of their papers, one student joked about how challenging it was for her to read the feedback I gave. “You don’t pull any punches,” she said. “And that can sting.”

Once again, I tried to explain my motivations and how I was focused on her growth. This time, I even brought in an  assurance that I regularly share with my son and daughter: “I’m on your side, 100% of the time. You just might not always know it.”

Flash forward to this weekend. This student gave a presentation at a research conference that some of my colleagues had organized. She was sharing work that she had completed in our class this semester and she did a great job. After the presentation, I met with her briefly to communicate my praise for her awesome work. “You rocked it,” I said. And I could see a grin beginning to emerge, and then she paused. “Are you serious?” she asked, before correcting herself. “Of course, you’re serious. You wouldn’t really hesitate to tell me otherwise.” I laughed, but I knew she was right.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about Paul Hollywood, a judge on the Great British Baking Show. When bakers meet his high standards, he offers a handshake as a form of praise. The handshake is only meaningful because he holds high standards and communicates clear feedback for growth.  While I don’t see myself as being nearly as cool as Paul Hollywood, I’d like to think that I’ve laid a similar foundation so that my praise is meaningful when it is offered.

That might make me unkind. It might make me blunt and unconventional. But I’m not really worried about any of that.

Did I mention that my student rocked her presentation? That’s enough for me.

Living in My Head

A few years ago, I visited a chiropractor because of some vertigo I had been experiencing. I originally saw my primary care physician who diagnosed me with an ear infection, despite not being able to detect any real infection. “It’s probably clearing up,” he explained. But the vertigo continued for weeks. After a friend recommended that a chiropractor could help, I made an appointment.

During my first visit, the chiropractor asked a lot of questions about my physical health, my mental well-being and my family background. She then asked a question that no one had ever asked before. “Do you live in your head or in your body?”

While the question caught me off guard initially, I answered without any reflection, “I live in my head.”

As I explained to the chiropractor, I’ve always had a strange disconnection from my body. It has basically served as a vehicle to get my head places. While this brain/body disconnect doesn’t cause any significant challenges for my work as an academic or as an educator, it isn’t ideal for learning to play sports or mastering other physical activities. I lumber through most sports without any real success.

While the vertigo subsided after several visits, the chiropractor’s question has become an ongoing joke at my house. The brain/body disconnect so aptly described how I navigate the world that my wife would regularly ask how many meetings I took my brain to that day. While the disconnect is kind of amusing, it can also be challenging. And that’s really the point of this post.

For Christmas 2019, our family decided to give experiences to one another rather than tangible gifts like a sweater or a pair of socks. For example, I bought my son tickets to see one of his favorite bands. My wife bought my daughter tickets to see an art exhibit. Each gift was an experience we planned to share as a family through 2020. But then a global pandemic hit and most of those experiences have gone unexperienced.

Jump ahead to this past weekend. I’m happy to report that my wife and I are fully vaccinated and that we’re trying to wade our way back into the regular world again. We’re still socially distancing and wearing our masks, but we’re trying to catch up on some experiences we had hoped to have last year, including the gift I gave my wife for Christmas 2019: dance lessons.

So, this past Sunday, my wife and I took a beginner class on “West Coast Swing.” While we were beginners, it was clear that some of the other people in the class had a bit more experience than my wife or me. They already knew basic moves like the “sugar push” or the “left hand pass” or the “left hand under turn.” While the teacher reviewed these beginner moves for us, I found myself struggling to keep up with even the basic steps or the count. My brain was rattling off “one, two, three and four, five and six” and my body was just doing its own thing. My brain/body disconnect was on full display.

At the end of the class, the teacher came over to my wife and me and asked how we thought it went. With everyone masked, I’m sure it was difficult to read our facial expressions. We explained that while we had taken dance lessons 25 years ago prior to our wedding, it had been some time since either of us had been on a dance floor. He thanked us for joining the class and said that he hoped we’d return next class. He then offered some words of encouragement.

“It’s important for us to get out of our comfort zone sometimes,” he said. “That’s where learning happens.”

So, while I doubt I’ll become a proficient dancer any time soon, my hope is that these dance lessons will help my body and brain learn to better communicate with one another.

I can live in my head. But I need my body to dance.