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What I have learned from teaching, by Elaine Decker

What I have learned by teaching by Elaine Decker

When I began teaching Grade Five 46 years ago, my principal introduced me to ‘individualized reading’ and the work of Dr. Jeanette Veatch. He held lunch time meetings with staff to discuss both the educational and practical aspects of inviting each child into the joy of reading by helping them choose books that met their own interests and their reading skills. Each month our class took the bus to the local library to scan the collection and gather 3 or 4 appealing books each, which then formed the basis of the reading program. I tried to read them all. We each read our books silently each morning. I read aloud each day to the whole class. I met with each child every few days to read together and discuss their chosen book, developing vocabulary, inferences, comprehension, critical thinking, and imagination, and building a relationship of care and trust.

Many years later I realized that while I was focused on the reading process, I was developing my own philosophy of teaching and learning, as well as a profound respect for the gentle, grounded, and respectful leadership demonstrated by my principal as he convened a community of practice without ever naming our gathering as such. I have maintained friendships with teachers from that staff and we continue to teach, to talk, and to study ourselves as learners, all with the intention of continuing to develop phronesis, or practical wisdom – the ability to figure out what to do in any given moment while also keeping in mind what is worth doing – now, or ever.

For the last decade I have been teaching graduate students in an educational administration & leadership program at a university, and more recently in the creating learning communities stream with SDGI. What did I learn in Grade 5 that is applicable in my work with future educational leaders? What did I learn about learning itself?

The learning belongs to the learner. Heidegger argued that at birth humans are “thrown” into the world, and begin their individual existential quests to learn, to make sense of themselves and their world. Author Mary Catherine Bateson describes this task as “composing a life”, an ongoing, unscripted interplay of theory and practice, influenced by historical conditioning and context, and enabled by imagination and courage. Graduate students bring all of these aspects of their compositions-in-progress to class, and mingle with others whose experiences and intentions may be similar or different. As we spend time together over several months, reading, talking, listening, we put our ideas into play, and as Gadamer would explain, we each move our individual “horizon of understanding” to a new place. My role as teacher/mentor in this mysterious exploration is to create an hospitable place – a place for curiosity, messiness, contradiction, confusion, joy, and reassurance.

Learning is active and reflective. Our class time, whether face-to-face or in an online gathering is a precious escape from the tyranny of the trivial in the busy lives of educators, and we appreciate the opportunity to think deeply, and to reconsider our practices, informed anew by scholarship, and by the views other students. Here are some examples of how we learn together.

To help students to consider the relationship between their own hermeneutic perspective and the exploration of a research question, I bring an old glass and aluminum nut grinder that belonged to my grandmother, and I ask students to take a few minutes “provide a brief account of this object” which is passed around the class for more detailed inspection.

Some students write a physical description; some provide a technical drawing; some tell a story of cookies made with grandma and love, smelling of cinnamon; one writes a WorkSafe style report explaining why the object was hazardous and should not be permitted in a modern kitchen. All are initially surprised by the different views taken by the others. In reflections and conversations, many express surprise about the views that they themselves had taken, and are moved to realize the learning opportunity provided by pondering their own actions. The different forms of “account” opened the scope of research methodologies as a way to find the best container for one’s story, rather than as a form that must be filled in.

Taking up Maxine Greene’s urging to “release the imagination”, graduate students return to the apparent simplicity of childhood and look differently at the stories in read-aloud books. I ask them, “What is the question of enduring human concern in this story?” Responses have included laughter, surprise, tears, and consistently “I’ve never read kids’ books with the intention of finding their philosophical core.”   This “going madly off in all directions” proves energizing, and potentially broadly applicable and students begin to look in unfamiliarly familiar places for ideas that are at first hidden from view.   They release, and harness, their own imaginations.

SDGI students who choose to join an exploration of the hermeneutics of humor (SD 531) are invited to bring to the first online meeting at least two versions of themselves. Their physical presence and their names are reasonably obvious identifiers, but we invite also their archetypal “fool” or “trickster”, their inside-out see-otherwise voice. We hold several conversations where we talk to ourselves – our “other” selves, welcoming often silenced or censored perspectives to expand our views. Many students report that this voice then becomes audible as they compose their days, offering them advice, asking questions, inviting a broader exploration of the world inside and out, moving them to possibilities.

Learning is relational. We learn in the mirror of the other. We are each other’s teachers. We are in the world together, and we make the world together. Appreciating these relationships makes learning more interesting, more challenging, more productive. I am alert for ways that every participant in the class can feel influential and essential to our common cause of learning. We greet each other; we thank each other; we use each others’ names. It seems so simple, and yet caring for each other needs to be valued, and practiced.

Teaching is a challenge and a privilege. Long ago, I tried to understand why a particular child chose a particular book, and I tried to construct a learning path that would honor that choice. Graduate school teaching presents the same challenge to understand the choices of each student, and to offer appropriate support. Like Gadamer, Maxine Greene argues that the new awarenesses achieved through the struggle with ideas must become the core of action. Living our philosophy, creating our world, are the applications of our study and show its real worth. For me, teaching hasn’t become easier over the years, but it has become more clear to me what a opportunity I have been given to contribute productively to our world.

Learn more about Elaine and what she is teaching at SelfDesign Graduate institute here! 

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