The painful path from aspiration to potency

Parker Palmer

Parker Palmer

I am a teacher at heart, and there are moments in the classroom when I can hardly hold the joy. When my students and I discover uncharted territory to explore, when the pathway out of a thicket opens up before us, when our experience is illumined by the lightning-life of the mind–then teaching is the finest work I know.

But at other moments, the classroom is so lifeless or painful or confused–and I am so powerless to do anything about it that my claim to be a teacher seems a transparent sham. Then the enemy is everywhere: in those students from some alien planet, in that subject I thought I knew, and in the personal pathology that keeps me earning my living this way. What a fool I was to imagine that I had mastered this occult art–harder to divine than tea leaves and impossible for mortals to do even passably well!

Palmer, P. J. (1997). The heart of a teacher: identity and integrity in teaching.

I thought of Parker Palmer yesterday as I watched our Grad Dip students teaching each other skills and concepts. For some it was an exhilarating experience, leading a group of their peers along the pathway out of a thicket. For others, it was puzzling and unsettling that the concept or skill that seemed so transparent and transferable was somehow getting bogged down, or diverted, or was becoming frustratingly elusive.

I remember these moments – both the good ones and the ones when I felt clumsy, impotent and defeated – from my early years in the classroom. Neither has ever competely disappeared, which is good news for those who worry that teachers are doomed to become cynical and defeated, and bad news for those who look forward to the day when teaching is an uncomplicated doddle in the park.

There’s lots to be learned from the bad moments. Here I want to write about just one.

Almost all of us come into teaching with the right mindframe. We want to make a difference. We want to set up classrooms where students feel seen, accepted and encouraged. We want our subject to be alive, relevant and stimulating. We want to see our students progress, and for their future lives to be affected by our teaching. These are common and necessary aspirations; if they wither, our teaching becomes lifeless and the path to cynicism opens up before us.

Our bad moments in the classroom teach us that aspirations are not enough. Wanting certain kinds of relationships, certain kinds of learning, is only a starting point.

As well as aspirations, we need specific skills and specific knowledge. We need to learn how to identify mandated outcomes and then adapt them into engaging lessons. We need to understand how to best respond to students with very different motivations and needs. We need to know how to break a lesson into segments that open up learning possibilities for different kinds of learners. We need to modify, and sometimes to shrug off, assumptions about learning and learners that have become ingrained in us through many years of being a student (the chief of which, in my view, is that teaching is telling and that learning is to passively absorb). We need to be able to adapt on the spot in the light of changing circumstances.

And these skills and this knowledge are not easily gained. Our teacher education courses never completely prepare us for what we will experience. I imagine (and, being a man, can only imagine) that this is not unlike prenatal birthing classes: those who attend diligently to the midwife and who conscientiously do all the exercises are better prepared, but once labour starts there’s more to learn.

Teacher education courses never completely prepare us, but sessions like yesterdays, especially for those students who had bad moments as they were teaching their peers, have the potential to be very useful. They reveal gaps in our skills and knowledge. They throw up all the right questions which, if worked on, can reduce some of the struggle of the first days in an actual classroom.

  • What was I trying to achieve in that session? Was this worth teaching? Was it, for my students, worth learning?
  • Was I paying more attention to my teaching than to my students’ learning?
  • How conscious, responsive and resourceful was I of a student’s lack of understanding?
  • Did I forget what I was trying to achieve once the lesson got under way? Did it become just a matter of getting to the end?
  • Do I know whether my students learned what I set out for them to learn?
  • How might I modify things next time so that the learning was more universally effective?
  • What gaps in my skills and/or knowledge did this experience reveal? How might I attend to those gaps?

These are hard questions. The answers to them are not easily or effortlessly found. We need both guts, and the help of others, to find them.

12 thoughts on “The painful path from aspiration to potency

  1. Hi Steve. Even though this was written for the grad dippers, I felt like it was personally meant for me. My first term is feeling quite as you and Palmer described. I’m visualizing in my head an idea that uni is like jelly, all the bits are there flowing over each other ready to be made more solid as you go into your first year, but then BAM! This big intricate 3D mazed cookie cutter of a system thing is in the way and you have to find a way to make the jelly flow and mesh and settle into the boundaries of the cookie cutter. I’m still working out how to move the jelly and get it to nestle nicely within the system. I also wondered that perhaps I should have used cookie dough as the jelly in the analogy, but that is way too neat and these issues are far far messier. Thanks 🙂

    • No, jelly seems right Libby!
      I wonder if some time you could describe for us the cookie cutter. What are its sharp edges? Which bits of the (desirable) jelly are in danger of being cut off? Are you hopeful of finding a way of moving the jelly into the shape of the cutter? Are you being allowed to be the teacher you want to become?

  2. There are a number of transferrable useful things I learnt in preparing for giving birth (for what they are worth to another soul). I knew I could ‘do the pain’, because I’d been practicing a toe stretch which mimics normal birthpain really well (sounds unlikely, but its true). So, methinks, mimicking the hard bits, making them the core of a personal teacher-training routine, may be key. So, what are the hard bits ? How to simulate those ?

    • What are the hard bits? Teaching a lesson and realizing, mid way through, that things are not turning out as expected. Noticing a student or small group off task and yet feeling committed to ploughing on for the sake of the bigger group. Losing sight, in the middle of a lesson, of what the point was, and shifting the objective from a learning objective to just making it through to the end of the session. Having no clue, midstream, what is motivating a certain student or group to act the way they are acting. Planning a lesson for the whole group, and half the group arrive late or are unexpectedly out on an excursion. Having a beautifully planned lesson, which is going swimmingly, but suddenly you’ve lost track of time and the bell rings before the crucial bit is reached. To name a few.
      Was our session on Tuesday afternoon a time when some of you practised the toe stretch and felt the pain? Should we simulate more?

  3. Pingback: The more answers, the more questions | ilovenewbies

  4. Meegs
    Hi Steve,
    After reading this I just began to chuckle, there seems to be a lot in common with mothers and teaching and I am bound to discover a whole lot more in my personal journey to become Miss Matthews (Though id prefer they called me Megan, thats a whole other topic). Im not convinced on Winnicotts mother infant battle in a literal sense, sometimes if a little “newbie” wont stop screaming, it sure can feel as if your under attack, I can however see how it relates in the classroom with the teacher student relationship. Leaves me with a couple of questions… Is battle inevitable? and if so am I ready for the battle?….

    Child Birth, one of if not the most important of moments in many women’s lives. You make detailed plans for how you’d like it to be conducted, you imagine, you role play, you take courses, seek information from others more experienced, you read everything you can get your hands on just in the hope of gleaning that little bit of information that makes it easier. Sound familiar? You embark on a journey of self discovery, your extremely nervous at what your about to face. (I must say I am feeling something rather similar at the thought of entering a classroom as a pre-service teacher for the first time….. ) Just like birth you can plan and prepare as much as your able and it certainly gives you more confidence for whats approaching. In the end though, and I know this was the case for me, above all you have to trust yourself, trust your instincts and if it really goes pear shaped which it very often does, well trust and know that those around you have the expert knowledge and guidance to help you through any difficulties. Pretty darn near sums up how I am feeling just about to enter this word of teaching… Im still madly flapping my wings hoping to take flight soon….

    • Hi Meegs,
      Trust yourself, yes; trust your instincts, yes; trust that you’ll get help from those around you, yes. All really important. Also remember that those birthing courses and the plans and the information you’ve collected are resources to draw on. I’m, of course, not talking about childbirth (which I’m not qualified to say anything about!), but about teaching. Being involved in teacher education, this is of course something I think about a lot: the usefulness of what we do on our courses.
      Thanks for the comment.

  5. Steve, I absolutely adore the way you narrate. Thank you for this. After Tuesday’s tute, I very much related to it, and it has given me even more food for thought. I think I will reflect again on my lesson (and the plan). What insightful questions.

  6. Steve – I must confess to being a quiet observer of your blog since the beginning of this year and have allowed your posts to wash over me, providing me with excellent food for thought. This post speaks to me so much right now. As Libby said, the jelly is all there and flowing around, it just hasn’t quite yet molded into the shape that works for me in the environment I’m in. My “cookie cutter” is one with many different qualities – some edges smooth and streamlined, some hard and defined, others refusing to make contact with the “jelly” and anything associated with it.

    After the Grad Dip last year, I really did feel like I was prepared for what my first year of teaching had in store. In many ways, I was but nothing could have prepared me for the fact that every single minute of every single day, I am learning more than I realised I was capable of learning. Not just about my practice and how to use the knowledge I gained last year in a practical sense, but about myself and what I really value and feel about education. I thought about this a lot last year, but when you are well and truly in the thick of it, it’s quite different.

    Thanks for the posts, Steve. Keep them coming. They remind me of some of the things that in the hustle-bustle of a busy school, it is so easy to forget, but so vital to remember.


    • Ah Danielle! The quiet observer! It’s almost exactly how I remember you. But only ‘almost’. There was something very engaged about your observing, something deep and connected!
      I’d love to read, or hear, some more about this year’s experience. Do you still write on your blog? Or maybe, like some of your cohort, you might like to write something on our Ning. Many in our current cohort are enjoying reading posts from former students now in their first or second years in the classroom.
      Thanks so much for the comment. I’ll keep them coming 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s