Parker Palmer’s idea of “We teach who we are” (Palmer, 1998) is an invaluable look at what it means to be a teacher today, and it describes almost to perfection the way I have approached teaching in my 19 years’ experience of teaching collegiate undergraduates in Michigan, Colorado and California. Palmer (1998) also argues that good teaching requires self-knowledge: I have known I wanted to teach since I was in the seventh grade. I teach who I am: a nurturing, caring and passionate learner aching to share knowledge with those who seek it from me in my classroom. I am not perfect, but I am committed to my profession. As Palmer (1998) notes, knowing the subject and the students relies heavily on self-knowledge. Knowing what teaching perspectives (Pratt, 1998) to employ in conjunction with the self-knowledge we possess as instructors is integral to successful learning for the students. The more you know about yourself, the better you can teach what you know to your students.
As noted earlier in the term, transmission and developmental perspectives (Pratt, 1998) are very good for teaching composition and literature, but invoking myself into the discussion means also including apprenticeship, nurturance and social reform perspectives as well. Is it possible to use all five of Pratt’s perspectives? In my TPI assessment, I scored pretty evenly amongst all five perspectives: apprenticeship and nurturance scored highest (34.00), transmission and social reform followed close behind (33.00), and developmental was last, albeit not by much (32.00). Each has value, and as I am a diverse individual myself, Palmer’s ideas dictate that I teach using diverse methodologies as well.
My “weakness”, however, is the developmental perspective, where the most effective teaching is planned with the learner’s needs in mind. I develop this technique more and more each time, but sometimes, I still am too self-centered in Palmer’s notions of teaching from within myself. I tend to remember what worked for me as a student and transfer that into my instruction, failing to account enough for the varying learner perspectives my students possess (see discussion below). My middle grounds are transmission (focusing on the content itself) and social reform (societal change), and I see the value in both. Sometimes, you just have to literally “transmit” knowledge from instructor to teacher: stating facts about Shakespeare (born 1564, died 1616) to provide context later in our discussions is necessary. Doing this all the time is terrible, however, for it squashes discussion and thoughtful exploration; using it judiciously and in context actually has tremendous value for build base facts for contextual discussion and exploration later.
In regards to social reform, I often encourage my students to look at the world’s problems and think about how they can “act locally to change globally”. For example, using Fast Food Nation as a text in a composition course enables students to consider commercial materialism and its effect on societal health, mental well-being and the environment. Maybe the students won’t change the world, but they will think about their actions and how they affect others. Finally, apprenticeship and nurturance are my primary perspectives. If I can get students to explore new realms and methods for action through hands-on assignments, they get the apprenticeship experience in the classroom. Having them conduct in-person interviews for research papers, for example, gives them tangible experience for future employment and/or scholarship. Ultimately, however, Palmer (1998) has me down pat when it comes to Pratt’s ideas of nurturance (1998): effective instruction originates from the heart, not from the mind. I teach subjects I feel passionate about, and that energy flows through me to my students. When I teach literature, for example, I refer to it as the “record of human experience”. I value the experiences of those who have come before us and those who share the world with us today. When that flows through me, I am at my best nurturing students to find what they love in the world, too, and demonstrating to them how they can follow their own hearts freely to whatever end they choose. Since all five perspectives are a part of who I am and how I teach, my approach is influenced by all of them. Depending on what the objective, goals and details of a course or an individual class session may be, I am flexible enough to delve into whichever perspective/method I need to connect to my students most effectively.
I employ three primary strategies in my teaching, based on context and need in conjunction with the appropriate perspective above. A brief lecture is a good way to start a class session, to connect the students to the goals and objective of the session. As Frederick (1986) argues, studies on attention spans indicate that 15-20 minutes is the maximum time a student will benefit from the transmission perspective before losing focus/interest. An emphasis on the participatory lecture (Frederick, 1986) also keeps students engaged: by connecting the transmitted information to their own thoughts, students will connect the cognitive threads of the thematic material. Therefore, using this time effectively to set up the rest of the session is imperative. Brookfield & Preskill (1999) highlight another strategy which works very well with the developmental, nurturance and social reform perspectives (Pratt, 1998): discussion. They articulate 15 benefits of discussion, and as long as a teacher takes care to set parameters for student freedom and safety, these benefits have an immeasurable impact on student awareness, cognition and learning. This is more than transmission; it is collaborative exploration of the world. Experiential strategies also have value in my teaching, because I must connect students to the importance of what they are learning in my classroom. If I don’t connect the material, they tend to check out. Cantor (1995) argues that learning should be dynamic, lifelong, and relevant to learners’ needs. Experience, by definition, is dynamic. Demonstrating the lifelong relevance of what is being learned to the students is key to this strategy. If I can show students why interview skills are important to their future through an apprenticeship perspective of teaching, they will engage themselves in the experience more enthusiastically and take more from the opportunity.
Some of the inauthentic strategies I have struggled with in my career have served their purposes when I have “checked out” of teaching for one reason or another (Palmer, 1998). Frederick’s ideas of the oral essay and smaller groups in large classes (1986), respectively, are short-term solutions to short-term teaching challenges: when I don’t feel like engaging with the students due to my energy levels (or lack thereof) and when I have grading to catch up on, respectively. The aforementioned three strategies – in conjunction with the associated Pratt perspectives (1998) – blend well with who I am and how I teach, for they have been authenticated through my experiences in the classroom.
Authentication of my preferred teaching perspectives and strategies does not mean I cannot be flexible. In reality, an instructor must be flexible, for there are days where what usually works will not work. And there are days what usually does not work will actually do the trick. Much of this depends on learning styles. The “influence of learners” is a key aspect of instruction, as Stark & Lattuca (1997) emphasized: “Learners’ capabilities, preparation, motivation, effort and goals may all influence faculty members as they plan courses and programs” (p. 179). If my students aren’t capable of learning through a prepared perspective/strategy combination, I must adjust or risk losing the students on any given day. As Stark & Lattuca demonstrate repeated in Chapter 8 of their book, “Influence of Learners”, faculty are in transition from developing their teaching methods based on the self to developing their teaching methods with more consideration for the students/learners. Considering Palmer’s ideas (1998), this seems to be in direct conflict. However, for me, I see it as a challenge to mix and match what I can do with what the students need. Yes, I have a plan each class session, but if it doesn’t work, I have the ability to shift on the fly – even for the short-term solutions noted above (oral essay, small group work) and another (spontaneous writing assignment). Generally, the small group work seems to work best for the students, while the latter is often a punishment for a lack of preparation on that specific day. In the end, teachers try and learn in order to develop a fuller repertoire of creative methodologies they can employ on a whim when the situation calls for it. This often only comes with experience, and to be successful, you still need the passion Palmer discusses to make it work consistently.
Teaching is not easy. The old idea of “Cool, I’ll teach and get my summers off every year!” is an antiquated model and stereotype. In essence, teaching is lifetime commitment of the teacher’s personal essence. As Palmer (1998) argues, teaching is a daily exercise in vulnerability, and teaching is always done at the dangerous intersection of personal and public life. Using this motif, Palmer also advocates dialogue with colleagues: “Taking the conversation of colleagues into the deep places where we might grow in self-knowledge for the sake of professional practice will not be an easy or popular task. Our task is to create enough safe spaces and trusting relationships within the academic workplace – hedged about by appropriate structural protections – that more of us will be able to tell the truth about our own struggles and joys as teachers in ways that befriend the soul and give it room to grow.” Perhaps this essay is a contribution to that dialogue with colleagues, and as Palmer notes, this may not be a “safe space” to honestly explore teaching theories. However, the more we engage is discourse on teaching, the more it will benefit our teaching and our students.
Brookfield, S.D. & Preskill, S. (1999). Discussion as a way of teaching. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Cantor, Jeffrey A. (1995). Experiential learning in higher education: Linking classroom and community. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 7. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, Graduate School of Education and Human Development.
Frederick P.J. (1986). The lively lecture—Eight variations. College Teaching, 34(2):43–50.
Palmer, P.J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Pratt, Daniel D., and Associates. (1998). Five Perspectives on Teaching in Adult and Higher Education. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.
Stark, Joan S., and Lattuca, Lisa R. (1997). Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.