Teachers Making Themselves Students

An Awkward Teacher Report Card

A few days ago, I was listening to George Couros’ book Innovator’s Mindset and he posed a question that caught my attention,“What is it like to be a student in your classroom?”  Couros’ question shifted my thinking about life in my classroom. I began to wonder how my students were experiencing lessons, activities and feedback in my class. To understand their point of view, I asked my students to give me a teacher report card. The awkwardness of the situation didn’t grip me until I was about to upload my Google Form survey.  Suddenly, I was filled with hesitations and unlikely scenarios began floating through my head. Would one of my students take this opportunity to vent all of their frustrations? Would my class really be able to give me any meaningful feedback?  Coming back to my senses for a moment, it was obvious that fear was blurring my vision

At first, I wasn’t sure why I was stalling but then it hit me–a power shift was occurring.  By giving my class the ability to participate in my formation as a teacher, I was sharing power.  In a way, my class and I were switching roles–they were being given the role of the evaluator and I was taking the role as the student.  Through this role reversal, I discovered that making myself a student was a vulnerable practice that was necessary for my continued growth.

Teachers Who Stop Learning

At the Simon Fraser University, my alma mater, many of the education students identified with the idea of becoming a “life-long learner.”  However, the life-long disciplines required to continue learning are difficult to maintain.  In fact, anyone who has out-lived the magical five-year mark in their teaching career, knows how easy it is to slide from “life-long learner” to “life-long lecturer.”  In other words, it is easy for teachers to become so comfortable in their position or curricular areas that they stop learning. Learning usually involves some kind of struggle but if teachers are too comfortable, they are usually not ready to lean into that struggle. Getting too comfortable could mean that a teacher gets stuck into stale patterns of educating that they are not passionate about.  It could even mean substituting creative endeavours for too much Netflix.  Whatever the case may be, none of us want to get to the place where we stop learning.  

A 41-Year-Old Starts Cello Lessons

cello

One way to counter patterns of lax learning is to intentionally look for learning challenges.  One inspiring example of this is in the second chapter of Andy Crouch’s book, Playing God, where he recalls the story of learning to play the cello at age 41–with no previous experience.  He remembers walking to his instructors house and with a tinge of anxiety “knowing that he was going to spend the next hour failing or flailing” as he struggled to play his scales.  Crouch notes that 15 years had passed since he had a teacher and he knew it was going to be difficult to make himself a student again.  

At one point, Crouch replays a cello lesson experience where his pinky finger would not reach the correct position on the fretboard so his instructor moved around behind him and put his hand on Crouch’s hand to reposition it.  After struggling together for a few moments to get the hand position, he was still unsuccessful. This whole experience left a lasting impression on Crouch because he couldn’t remember a teacher physically positioning his hands since childhood. In a sense, he was being treated like a child and had to have the humility and vulnerability to accept his position as a student.  As I read Crouch’s account of this learning experience, it really highlighted the vulnerability of the learning process and the importance of engaging in these kind of learning challenges as a teacher.

Taking Learning Challenges

For Crouch, becoming a cello player was the answer to a learning challenge that he was searching for.  By “learning challenge,” I mean that Crouch’s choice to learn this instrument wasn’t required by an employer or outside authority–it was self-imposed.  In later section of his book, Crouch mentioned that he was already an accomplished pianist and didn’t really need to master another instrument. In this sense, Crouch is someone who, even though he had experienced success as a writer and musician, stepped out of his comfort zone to continue growing as a learner.      

In his cello learning experience, Crouch exemplifies what Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset.  He is someone who is actively owning his own learning and seeking out new learning experiences to continue growing. This is the opposite of a person who works inside his/her known strengths and becomes increasingly fearful of new areas of learning. Knowing and developing your strengths is definitely an important step for anyone. However, a teacher who is constantly working within his/her comfort zone encourages a fixed mindset simply because it decreases their ability to wade into unknown areas with their students.   

Moving From Growth Mindset to Growth Heart-set

Taking on a learning challenge, for Crouch, goes much deeper than simply cultivating a growth mindset, he understands it as a spiritual discipline.  That is, he suggests that taking on the role of student has the potential to shape ones mindset and heart-set. One change is deeper than the other. The change Crouch envisions goes deeper than a change of “mindset,” it touches  the motivations and emotions of the learner.  He understands this cello learning challenge as having potential to transform the whole person.  For example, consider Crouch’s reasons for deciding to learn cello.  He says that he learn the cello because:

    • It humbled him by making him return to the basics
    • It reminded him of how little he really knows and has experienced
    • It helps to wean him from negative uses of power and the self-importance that accompany even the slightest bit of success.
    • It modeled learning, growing and stretching to his family
    • It contributed to a culture of creation rather than consumption

By stating reasons like increased “humility” for learning the cello, he is signalling that these kind of experiences change his mind, attitude and potentially even his desires.   

All of Crouch’s reasons for learning the cello, are also reasons that make me want to look for learning challenges as a teacher.  To be honest, I like to identify myself a teacher who is in control, as one who assesses and offers correction others. However, constantly thinking of myself in these ways can too easily lead to control-freak tendencies and abuses of power in the classroom.  Taking a personal learning challenge is a great way to detoxify those ways of thinking, cultivate empathy for students who struggle and create a culture of risk-taking in my classroom.

Right now, one learning challenge for me is playing the guitar.  I’ve never played a stringed instrument in my life before so I’ve struggled to make progress over the last few years.  I still haven’t completely mastered the F cord but I like to update my class on my learning journey.  I want them to understand that I’m also a struggling learner and I don’t ever want to be a teacher that stops learning.  What about you?  I would love to hear about some of the learning challenges that you have pursued and where it has taken you.  Please leave a comment for me in below.

Reflection

What are you learning challenges are you taking that you could share with your class?

How are you being attuned to the vulnerabilities of your students by making yourself vulnerable as a learner?


Photo by Maruska R

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