My colleague Sam Brennan, who blogs about fitness, feminism, and ageing at Fit, Feminist, and (almost) 50, recently wrote about her experience learning to row. She invited readers to share their own rowing stories, and this put me in mind of the term (long ago now) that I spent on the varsity crew at the University of Alberta. That experience embeds a teaching lesson for me, and in the context of Sam’s post it got me thinking about the crucial roles that listening and recognizing play in effective teaching practice.
I joined the UofA crew to do something different. I’d been a debating nerd since high school, but I’d grown weary of the pressures and the posing that characterized my university debate club. My friend Andrew was a rower and I admired his fitness and his dedication to sport. Thanks to his example, and to my debate fatigue, I decided I wanted to step way outside my usual box. I would remake myself as an athlete.
My first few times out with the club generated a steep learning curve; rowing is hard and requires a lot of balance, strength, and skill. I persevered, though, and slowly got more adept. I knew that I didn’t look the part of a varsity athlete: I was a bit overweight, not especially fit (yet), and not particularly coordinated (still a problem, sigh). This reality lurked always in my mind but didn’t bother me too much at the time; I remained committed to the training through the fall. It wasn’t lost on me, though, that the young women slated for the “A” boat all looked a lot more trim (and frankly a lot more feminine) than I did, even though we were all beginners.
About half way through our fall open water training we did an ergometer test to measure each team member’s relative strength. I have always been strong and I surprised the coach by sustaining a forceful pull the entire three minutes of the test. My score landed me in the top half of the group, and I was damn proud. I thought I’d won a place in the boat going to the next big regatta. The coach told me, however, that he needed to keep me back; my stroke wasn’t proficient enough. Naturally I was frustrated, and a fair bit angry. I thought I’d defied the odds: I thought I’d demonstrated that I was not the “fat” girl in the boat, but the “powerhouse” I’d been on the machine. I thought that I had managed to show the coach who I really was. I thought he had finally recognized me, seen me not for the person I appeared to be, but for the person I was trying so hard to become. When I realized I had assumed wrongly I got pretty depressed. I let that affect my commitment, and after the cold set in and the team moved onto land, I stopped attending practice.
When I look back on this episode now, I know I was upset with the coach’s decision in part because he was right: my stroke was really inconsistent. But I also know that I was deeply upset at the perceived injustice of that decision because I felt that the coach hadn’t made any real effort to help me to improve my stroke all those times we were out on the water; in fact, I often felt like he hadn’t seen me at all. He said barely anything to me during our morning workouts, and my guess is that he assumed from the start (whether he knew so or not) that I couldn’t cut it and that he doubted I’d last long. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he was right.
As a teacher myself now, I take from this (still very strong) memory a lesson about the extraordinary power that recognition – and a lack thereof – carries in classroom settings. I was reminded of this power recently by two very different scholars of teaching and learning. In “Desiring Recognition, Accumulating Affect” (in The Affect Theory Reader, 2010), Megan Watkins explores the affective exchanges provoked by the processes of recognition that take place between teacher(s) and student(s) in classroom settings. Examining a range of literature on affect and pedagogy, Watkins probes the role that affect accumulation within the bodies in a classroom can play in “promo[ting] the desire and capacity to learn” (279). For Watkins, classrooms are spaces of “mutual recognition”, and when teachers in particular take the time and make the effort to recognize their students – to see and then to understand their current selves, their current limits, their needs, their potential, and their efforts to grow – the results are often (though of course not always) a net gain for everyone in the room. Put simply: when a teacher gets excited about students’ efforts to figure out a problem, and builds energy towards the process of its solving, that energy “catches on” around the room, propelling further, often better, work.
Similarly, in a recent article in the National Teaching and Learning Forum, James Rhem describes the work of Alan Schoenfeld on modelling best teaching practices. Schoenfeld is a mathematician, but his model is transferable and is based on the simple but ingenious premise that in order to understand how we teach, we first need to parse what we assume about the teaching of our subject – especially those assumptions we may take too much for granted. As Schoenfeld concludes:
The thing that characterized the true expertise of expert teachers is that they are superb at listening to their students, at hearing what their students are actually saying, meeting the students where they are, and creating a space where the students can learn productively. That’s a core part of their belief system. What happens is if you think it’s important, you can develop that skill, and that’s where that body of pedagogical content knowledge gets developed over the years.
I think it’s fair to say that had my rowing coach tried harder to recognize me – had he perhaps questioned some of his assumptions about who I was and what I could be expected to become – he might have been able to hear what I could not quite say to him, and perhaps he might even have been able to embody some of the energy I needed in order to develop greater strength and discipline of my own. This is not, of course, to say that I needed the coach to do my heavy lifting for me; that is not the point of either of these pedagogical models. Rather, it’s to suggest that the coach’s perceived failure to see or hear me as I wanted to be, and as I was prepared to work harder to become, prevented me from engaging in that hard work, hindering my progress immeasurably. I failed at rowing; there’s no doubt about it. But he failed me seriously, too.
So how, then, do we not fail our students on these fronts? How do we see, hear, recognize, and listen better? I’m the first to admit how hard this is. When I go into a classroom for the first time I take the time to meet all my students, asking them to introduce themselves to me and to one another using a variety of ice-breaker techniques. Despite this good practice, though, by the end of day one I am already starting to slot students into categories, working via a combination of precedent and assumption to get a read on everyone in the room. This is a stress management technique: I need to have some control over the space and I need to know where I stand within it in order to keep a lid on my natural performance anxiety. I “figure out” the students in order to manage my classroom stress (which of course also helps me to be a more effective teacher). But where does this leave them?
For years, in my youthful enthusiasm, I invited all of my new students to meet me in my office at the start of each term; I asked them to fill out a short survey about their experiences with theatre and drama and we’d use that survey as a starting point for a short conversation. I started to grow disillusioned with this technique, though, when I realized that I was directing almost all of the conversations exactly the same way. Again, stress management (and time management!) come into play: if I move from topic A to topic B to topic C, I’ll get you out of here in under 10 minutes and you’ll still feel like we’ve “met”. But will I have really encountered you? Will I have seen who you want to be, who you are already becoming?
During these brief introductory meetings I used to ask students to set themselves a goal for the term. Sometimes I’d do it with them; sometimes I’d set the task as I was guiding them out the door. It occurs to me now that this goal-setting exercise, done properly, might be a very useful way for the two of us – me and the student in the chair in front of me – to get to know each other better, for real. Perhaps this coming semester I’ll ask my new students to my office, invite them to sit, and then hand them paper and pen and ask them to develop a goal for the term with me. Perhaps we’ll each write down what we might each do to help advance that goal. Perhaps I’ll share my teaching goal(s) too. Perhaps we’ll begin to see each other, really.