Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Brief Tale of the Classroom Interloper
Ruminations on Authority, Confidence, and Intangibility

The Fates: the ultimate authority figures
(This is the second in a series of posts based on my experiences teaching a pre-calc class at a private school. See my last post for a more complete introduction.)

The other day, a girl who’s not in my class accompanied one of my students into the room at the start of the period. The two were sharing a fit of Thursday afternoon giggles and entered full of unexplained hilarity. Now, the culture of the school where I teach permits a certain amount of deviation from proscribed routines, and it’s not so unusual for a student to follow her friend into a classroom simply for the fun of it—and, I suspect, to see what it’s like in there. The purpose of such excursions is surely benign, but I find the loosening of structures to be a slippery slope, and I try to make sure classes start on time and start focused. In short, I wanted the interloper gone, and I knew she soon would be.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Autonomy, Respect, and Obedience
Observations from my own Teaching Practice

So, I was having a hell of a time finding an image for this post, when I ran into this weird little drawing in the google image results for "teacher." As my friend Erica points out, and as I don't know how I missed, it's clearly a drawing—or a schematic almost—of Jesus and the apostles. What interested me about it initially were the yellow lines over the "teacher" which seemed to indicate an authority that went beyond discipline and obedience towards something moral. The authority indicated, I now see, is a divine one, but, for a secular Jew & pantheist like myself, the distinction is minor. The vision is of teacher as purveyor not merely of knowledge but of wisdom and moral direction. Moral authority comes less from what one knows of morals than of how one's students view one.
Evidently, I am not efficient enough to simultaneously keep up with my new teaching schedule and post regularly to this blog, so instead of my usual essays, I’m going to start posting brief thoughts and observations arising out of my own teaching practice. These will come primarily from the pre-calculus class that I began teaching two months ago.

The class is held at a high-end private day-school, whose philosophy is Romantic—that is, permissive, individualist, and committed to teacher autonomy, student choice, and learning as the pursuit of truth and beauty. Sixteen students are enrolled in my class, which I think may be the perfect number for the instructional methods I’m using. The course content is loosely defined and oversight is minimal, so that within the (unfortunately brief) confines of my 45-minute block, I have a lot of freedom to teach what and how I like. Because my other weekly commitments are small, I have more time and energy than any full-time teacher could ever hope for to devote to planning and preparing my curriculum and to assessing student work. In short, I have the ideal conditions for rigorous, thoughtful pedagogical innovation, and the result is that I am teaching by far the best class I’ve ever taught.

If my reflections on the class appear at times big-headed, let me explain that I have been, in my estimation, the worst teacher in an entire school—incompetent, weak, and ineffectual—and if I am doing even a halfway decent job now, it is only because I have learned a little from my mistakes. I am still painfully aware of my shortcomings as a teacher, but the conditions of my pre-calc class—not only those factors listed above, but the cultural similarity between myself and my students, the maturity and intelligence of the students, etc.—show my teaching in the best possible light.