My teaching philosophy has been derived from a combination of John Dewey’s Experiential Learning and Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I both think and know that learning happens through doing, and I both suspect and hope that a new relationship between student and teacher can be forged that is not based strictly on hierarchical models of dispensing information. I came across these pedagogical philosophers long after I started teaching, and I recognized my own aspirations and practical experience in their writings.
The idea of experiential learning has become ever more crucial to me as I continue to teach. I start every new semester off with doing first and talking later. I start nearly every session with doing first and talking later. I have observed the dynamic shift that happens in a room full of people, particularly when they are first meeting me as their teacher, from wary detachment or bored tolerance, to engaged, amused, and intrigued interest. I find that by doing first and talking later, the students are given the intellectual room to make their own discoveries, come to conclusions that perhaps I had in mind, but seem more authentically theirs, and are more deeply integrated into their knowledge about the subject at hand. I have a very sensitive inner clock; when I feel like I have been talking too long, I shift into doing. Doing can include everything from writing in class, performing, doing experiments, reading aloud their writing, discussion, and operating interactive media. I am also very comfortable with the experience of failure in this context; not every experiment I have the students undertake bears fruit, or is all that meaningful for every student. But the object lesson of finding out through trying it is well worth the times it is a bust.
I have begun, in the last few years, to include the notion of paying attention as an active form of doing. I have observed that most people have a hard time paying real, close attention, and so I have made explicit the problem and speak of attention as one of the learning objectives in class. This includes making explicit the intoxicating pull of social media and email, and the incessant checking of same, that happens whenever someone sits in a classroom full of computers, and has pockets full of blackberries, or whatever. By drawing attention to this intoxication, and by not approaching it censoriously, but rather, by mimicking what I see as the subtle shifting of eyes from the room to the screen, for humorous effect, I find this can disarm the students enough to make them self-regulate, and to avoid the terribly deadening effect of “mama-teacher” scolding the student.
As I continue to teach over some years, I have noticed that one way I use my personal charisma and theatricality in the classroom is through the use of judiciously placed vulgarity. I have thought a lot about how this works, and I observe that my somewhat matronly appearance can lull students into thinking of me as motherly, which I intuit is the beginning of an insidious infantilizing of themselves. The more they infantilize themselves, the less responsible they are for what we are creating together in the room in that moment. They have very hard wired hierarchies in place that determine a lot about their sense of authority, responsibility, and accountability. I am firmly committed to drawing attention to these pre-conceptions and critiquing them through my own behavior. By using vulgarity, I am both being more myself (I am quite foul mouthed in my private life), and less the mono-dimensional “mama- teacher” they might want. I see that it disarms and surprises them into suddenly paying a different kind of attention. I am not going to take care of them in the way they think I am. I am going to take care of them by creating a situation within which they have to operate as adults and co-creators of their own education.
Lastly, I am deeply compassionate towards my students as human beings. I experience true compassion as that which cuts like a knife, down through the confusion, resistance, and expectation, and posits candor as the greatest form of respect. I think it is more important to be kind than to be nice. But I never leave anyone hanging, unable to continue. Critique is followed by a rubbing of hands together, and saying, “Ok, now what are we going to do about it?” I don’t aspire to be friends with my students, but I know that we are comrades, and it is only in this circumstance that lands me in the position of being their teacher.
Within all these thoughts, I have come to consider my teaching as a part of my art practice. At first I segregated the two modes, and thought I was bringing teacher-mind to school, and artist-mind to rehearsal. But now, I know that creativity and facilitation are all part of the same game, the exploration and expression of the things we don’t know yet, are trying to figure out, or are just fun to do.