Teachers Noticing Teachers, 2002-2003
The Teachers Noticing Teachers, or TNT, program is an important aspect of ongoing faculty development run through PLNU’s Center for Teaching and Learning. Each semester the Center’s director identifies one of the University’s best teachers as the TNT host professor and a group of 4 to 6 professors volunteer to observe several of the host professor’s class sessions during the semester. Participants then meet as a group with the Center director and the host professor to discuss what they liked in the host professor’s class and what they think they could adapt to fit their own classes and their own teaching style. These meetings serve as a springboard for stimulating discussions of teaching. But the classroom observations are where the real treasures are found, as is evident from the description below of the two TNT professors for the 2002-2003 academic year.
In an article on liberal arts education, Jedediah Purdy implicitly compares good teaching to good gardening and suggests some truths about teaching in the picture he paints of his mother gardening. “I sometimes think that … she must have resisted [any] union of thought and dirt. Thought resents the gnarled roots that trip it, the mud that sullies it, the endless tasks that stake it to a place and a routine. Thought wants the privilege of cleanliness, and the liberty to leave. Yet [my mother] has succeeded in embedding her thought thoroughly in the dirt, the growing things, and the labor of that place. Her thought, which might once have carried her away, is now her way to stay. The shape of her thought is her concern for her place, her love of it, and her fear for its future, and so her devotion to the work that its maintenance requires.”
As a gardener of student hearts and minds, I resonate with this image, with the desire to find clarity of focus and freedom of thought in a universe devoid of the gnarled roots of student problems, academic and emotional, no longer tethered to the stakes of homework and class preparation. I long at times for the ivory tower, that idealized place of solitude in which to work. But Purdy is right. The things I care most about grow in dirt, in the repetitive, mundane, ever-so-human daily reality of a classroom with real students, with real problems, with real limitations, doing real work that I really have to grade.
It was a privilege during the 2002-2003 year to watch two wonderful gardeners at work. In the fall several of us observed Linda Beail, particularly in her general education class The Politics of Race, Class and Gender. Dr. Beail is skilled at fostering discussion that has content and purpose. First, she provides a wealth of clearly summarized background material so that students can access it for discussion. Second, she asks questions that are open-ended, that can have more than one “correct” answer. Third, she waits in a comfortable, non-judgmental attitude for students to answer. Most important, perhaps, she knows how to do what Parker Palmer calls “hear students into speech.” She recognizes that many students are silent not out of laziness or stupidity but through a sense of disempowerment. She affirms something of value in what every student says, takes every proffered idea seriously, but helps students see where they need to develop their ideas further. She is skilled at creating a free and fearless space in which students can explore all ideas.
What most impressed me, however, was the personal discipline by which she so often chose the harder path and refused the easy fix. Rather than provide all the paradigms of thought for students, she often pushed them to formulate these for themselves, to do some of the crucial tasks of higher thought. Yet she also showed great wisdom and sensitivity in gauging when students were tired of struggling with the task of thought and needed a bit of help. Watching her work in her academic garden was exciting, encouraging and energizing.
The spring semester’s participants in Teachers Noticing Teachers visited Mike Lodahl’s class, especially his general education Christian Tradition class. Mike’s exemplary ability to control a class, even in the disorganized, centrifugal space of Boney Hall, results from his endless enthusiasm for the thing to be studied, his boundless love for and acceptance of students (he tries to know them all by name), and his cheerful determination that students will grow into their best selves. Mike backs this determination up with the personal discipline to confront inappropriate behaviors effectively but graciously. When a student started throwing paper at another student, Mike could have ignored him—and taught that the best way to handle problems is to pretend they aren’t there. He could have humiliated the student and implicitly taught an even worse lesson. Instead, he told the student to not throw paper and distract the class, thanking him sincerely when he stopped, in a tone devoid of anger.
Parker Palmer recommends finding the “holographic” spot of every discipline, the small piece that represents the whole. “A critical episode in a novel, a particular historical event, a classic puzzle in science—any one of these, properly approached, can be the grain of sand in which a world is revealed.” I was fortunate enough to attend a class when Mike engaged in a brief reflection on the following popular student chorus.
He came from heaven to earth
To show the way
From the earth to the cross
My debt to pay
From the cross to the grave,
from the grave to the sky,
Now I lift your name on high.
He took what I have always seen as just one more theologically thin student chorus and showed how it contained, in miniature, the incarnational theologies of three major Christian thinkers whom the students had already studied. Then he reminded us that such a theological stew was permissible because Christianity has never settled on one orthodox interpretation of the incarnation. Watching Mike give meaning to a student chorus and structure to Boney Hall was watching a master gardener at work.
We are all gardeners and the work is dirty because it is so real. It is frustrating because growth takes so much time. And it is tedious because it takes so much repetition, makes so many false starts, leads to so many dead ends. But the work is important because our students are the future of our church and our country and our world, because the growth of Christian hearts and minds is indeed God’s work, and because there is as much—no, more—joy in the path itself as in the end product. So I publicly thank Linda and Mike and all the rest of my fellow gardeners for patient, painstaking labor in the soil God has provided us here at PLNU.