My working life has always been diverse. Over the past thirty years I’ve developed and taught seminars, worked as a coach and consultant, and facilitated many groups on an assortment of topics. My clientele have ranged from Senior citizens to troubled teenagers to creatively blocked adults and everything in between. I’ve developed and taught computer training courses for Fortune 500 corporations, led tours for wine connoisseurs at a local farmers market, facilitated creative writing workshops at a yoga center, organized focus groups for educational institutions, taught swimming lessons for children and grown adults, hosted community poetry readings at the public library, presented technical expertise at corporate meetings, and mentored troubled teens at a high-priced boarding school. I’ve also taught a range of university courses for undergraduate and graduate students. In all cases, diverse as they may be, the same principles of teaching and learning applied.
I didn’t know this ten years ago when I was hired to teach an “Instructional Strategies” course in a teacher credentialing program. I presumed, of course, that teaching was about standing in front of a group of students as an expert, delivering content information. The problem I had, however, was that the roles were switched. My students, with a couple exceptions, were experienced teachers who simply needed to acquire a course credit and I—I had never taught a class in a formal classroom before. I wasn’t even sure what instructional strategies were. I was frightened.
What did I do? I went on a search for tools and techniques. I wanted to know how to teach. I wanted someone to tell me everything I needed to know to be a good teacher. I would then memorize this information, practice it at home, and hope the students in my classes would never know that I was inexperienced. One of my first stops was a workshop on how to facilitate groups. However, on the third day of this five-day workshop, we still had not gotten to techniques. I still did not have anything to arm myself with when I walked into the classroom to teach for the first time. I was frustrated and when the workshop resumed after lunch I spoke up. “This isn’t what I came here for. I need to know how to teach.” The instructor looked at me for a moment and then turned around and drew this diagram on the flip chart:
“Everything rests on who you are,” he told me, “Once you have that, the ‘how’ is easy.”
So I started teaching a classroom of experienced teachers with no techniques under my belt. The only real method I had was to be a learner, to try things out and learn along with the students whether they worked or not. After all, the title of the course was Instructional Strategies—what better way to learn than to use the course itself as our laboratory?
My class was a required course in a teacher-credentialing program at a large university, a program that provided teaching certificates to vocational and adult educators. Students came from dramatically diverse backgrounds and teaching situations, and most of them had been teaching for years. There were high school and junior high teachers, but also medical educators, corporate trainers, social workers, teachers who worked with disabled populations, in senior centers, prisons, nursing homes, and so on. It was clear that there was no way I could provide these people with a pre-packaged set of information. My task was to pursue a deeper inquiry into teaching along with my students. It would be an adventure.
I was not an expert on the subject of classroom teaching and I certainly couldn’t offer these students specialized expertise regarding their own particular teaching situations. But I soon discovered that I had a skill that was much more important: I was an expert learner. I didn’t need to present myself to the class as someone who had all the answers. My real job was to be a guide, to initiate with my students a conversation about the subject of teaching. I would enter into this inquiry along with the students and I would be fluid with whatever arose from that conversation. I would draw the wisdom out of the room and I would learn along the way. I have since come to discover that no matter what situation is in front of me, whether it be a group of rambunctious teens or weary adults, being a learner is the only thing that really works. Being a learner is what allows creative insight to happen.
Excerpted from Chapter 1 of Getting Messy: A Guide to Taking Risks and Opening the Imagination.