Teacher as Learner

The direction that I would give to all teachers is: Watch the child, watch his attitude of attention. Is it spontaneous? Is the light of pleasure in his eyes? Is interest the motive which controls him?

–Colonel Francis W. Parker

Maggie Doyne’s story shows that self-actualization is not the end game (as I once thought when I studied Abraham Maslow years ago.) Self-actualization is a quality of experience that each of us can have, and we can have it at any age.

At the age of 18, Maggie launched herself off into the world with only what she could carry in her backpack. In the course of the next five years she discovered depths of human suffering and joy she didn’t know existed, built an orphanage and a school for 200 children, and “…got my passion back to live and to learn and to be human on this earth.”

Maggie’s genius spoke to her. She listened and took action that powered her education. Maggie is in the groove of being Maggie, and it is clearly glorious. Genius is something each of us has rather than something that a few of us naturally are or could become if we practiced for 10,000 hours. When educators partner up with a child’s genius, we create the conditions for self-actualization.

Noticing, believing in, and listening for that genius is the heart of loving our children, as well as the core business of school. For education is leading each character out into the world to function effectively and gracefully within it. School can do this for children. Self-actualization is not something we should hold as a possibility for ourselves or our children after we have satisfied all of our baser needs. It is a mental state we can create.

Teachers can make this happen for children but they can’t do it if they are not themselves on a journey of exploration, if they are not themselves learners, if they are not willing to let themselves be changed.

Teachers also have to band together to make school a learning community. It is really hard for people to sustain themselves as learners in a social environment characterized by what Martin Haberman calls the pedagogy of poverty.

In such a school “The classroom atmosphere created by constant teacher direction and student compliance seethes with passive resentment that sometimes bubbles up into overt resistance. Teachers burn out because of the emotional and physical energy that they must expend to maintain their authority every hour of every day. The pedagogy of poverty requires that teachers who begin their careers intending to be helpers, models, guides, stimulators, and caring sources of encouragement transform themselves into directive authoritarians in order to function.” (“The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good TeachingPhi Delta Kappan, December1991) Poverty of the soul and poverty of learning are mutually reinforcing. Perhaps they are the same thing.

In a learning community where everyone is a learner, teachers create a dance which produces steady increases in student authority. In such a community adult authority–wonder of wonders–increases also. Children, who are potentially always in love with learning, get the experience of loving themselves, their classmates and the learning they are doing together. Work has meaning. They owe all this to the teacher and they know it.  The key ingredient? Teacher as learner.

Once a teacher said so me: “Look, I have been teaching this way for twenty years and I am not about to change.”

I didn’t answer right away. I looked at him for what seemed like a long time. My face fell and I said, “If you really mean that then you can’t be at this school.” In the conversation that followed I was not able to soften his resistance, and he did not return.

As principal of a school my main job was helping parents, teachers and students over learning hurdles. From time to time I would find a person whose particular resistance to learning was not mine to change. In my experience everyone wants to be a learner and at the same time each of us is resistant to learning. We need each other to help us get past that resistance, so that we can keep letting our genius be our guide.

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4 thoughts on “Teacher as Learner

  1. If a school were a birthday cake, then we’d hope each candle was lit. Without the light of learning, it’s not possible for all to sing.

    If each member of the learning community does not light an inner candle, surely the whole school will suffer. While we all know teachers burn out often, we seldom ask ourselves why. In my opinion, we need to ask ourselves the following questions:

    Why do so many teachers burn out, and what can we do to help them reignite the fire? Sometimes, it might be too late (as in the case you described above); but we shouldn’t give up on teachers (so quickly) any more than we should give up on the students.

    Are we hiring the right individuals? Have we even asked them their motivations for entering the teaching profession, and whether or not they even have the strong love of learning and reading that they should be able to pass on to children? Sometimes, it seems individuals who do the hiring focus so much on the little details that they don’t really capture the applicant’s “big picture.”

    Hiring committees should not just think “inside the school” when developing questions to ask teaching applicants. And they should think even harder when hiring school administrators, who set the tone for everyone else in the learning community. Otherwise, we’ll be whispering the birthday song in the dark.

    Thank you for yet another thought-provoking post! Let us think before we eat cake….

  2. Dawn, these are excellent questions and observations. I taught for about a year. I only lasted that long. I know how stressed teachers are, so I’m happy that Rick and others are looking at schooling and offering a new vision. We need buildings full of happy people–children and adults.

  3. Rick –

    You refer to Haberman’s “Pedagogy of Poverty vs. Good Teaching.” I’ve circulated this article to countless colleagues, administrators, etc… and I have yet to find more than a handful of people who actually “get” the irony of control and authority and what it does to kids and their learning experiences. We’re enthralled with what “works.” More than that, we want it to “work quickly.” But we sometimes forget to unpack what “work” really means, both in the result sense and in the process sense.

    Thanks for this post!

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