catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 1 :: 2009.01.02 — 2009.01.16


Ten things for teaching

Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?
Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts.
So it’s fairly simple to cut right through the mess
And to stop the muscle that makes us confess.

We are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys.

Ingrid Michaelson, “Breakable”

I’m not a natural at classroom teaching-interpersonal mentoring perhaps, especially over good coffee or extended mealtimes, but not teaching.  Being in front of a group facing vague expectations about who I should be and what I should be doing (my own expectations included) induces all kinds of insecurities and firstborn complexes.  I’d rather be invisible in the background, organizing details to a tee, or sitting in front of my computer shaping each sentence just so, with the option to replace, reword, delete.  Teaching calls on some of the same anemic skills that made me less than stellar at improvisation during my undergraduate theatre studies.

However, for better or worse, teaching is something I need to do.  It’s pursuing me, looking alternately like the gentle shepherd seeking the sheep and the ring wraiths chasing the hobbits-which is to say, some days I’m grateful and some days I’m terrified.

Knowing this task is and will be before me, I’ve been trying to listen for even the most mundane advice on how to cultivate the skill of teaching.  Here are some rather basic things I’ll be trying to remember as my husband and I take on our first full-credit course this January:


  1. Know and be comfortable with who you are.  Students can adapt to a variety of personalities and teaching styles, but will respond in kind to inauthenticity, especially when it comes in the form of trying to achieve some elusive coolness.  Achieving coolness is actually counterproductive because it makes students feel insecure about themselves.  Being your nerdy, flawed self allows them to reciprocate.
  2. Expect a lot while desiring your students’ success.  This involves having some idea of what success is, both including and beyond grades.  It also involves caring about each student individually and having some idea of what his or her next step is.
  3. Get close enough to tell your story and hear your students’ stories.  Meeting one-on-one, learning names and sharing from your own experience when it’s relevant are all helpful in seeing one another as people.
  4. Let students see that you are both enthusiastically studied and still learning alongside them.  Curiosity and enthusiasm are infectious, as are boredom and exhaustion.
  5. Engender mutual respect, rather than enforced hierarchy.  I’ve heard arguments on both sides of the debate about classroom authority, but for my subject and purposes, I think a more communal, cooperative approach is better.
  6. Approach unsatisfactory answers as opportunities.  Rather than forging ahead to get to the right answer, figuring out how students come to poor interpretations can help them read and learn better next time.
  7. Provide space for them to apply the material to their specific passions and interests.  Free reign on a research paper assignment my senior year of high school was invaluable for me.  Invitations to make choices can expose students who have trouble discerning their passions because of boredom or cynicism-encourage them to struggle out of such complacency for the good of the class at hand and life in general.
  8. Find ways for all voices to be heard.  Don’t coast on the discussion of the vocal few, but employ creative pedagogical techniques for class discussion.
  9. Encourage questions that have difficult or multiple answers.  Learning is a lifelong state of being.  Hard questions humble us and reinforce our desires for multiple kinds of knowledge, not just cold, hard facts.
  10. Learn to let go.  One of my greatest weaknesses is to want to know exactly what to say, how to answer every question, how to fill every minute of time.  I need to practice letting go of lesson plans, self-image and the confines of linear time (as in, having to make sure everything comes through loud and clear during the class-it may take a long while for ideas to germinate and flourish).  I need to trust the process and the Spirit.


I’m still arguing with the Burning Bush about this task that feels counterintuitive in so many ways, but I’m pretty sure the Bush is winning.  And I’m pretty sure I’ll have at least a dozen more things to add to this list by the end of January.  It’s an overwhelming responsibility: attempting to speak into the formative passions of a person and change that person for good.  I recognize myself as a beginner, but even as such, I have to practice on real, breakable people. 

Kyrie Eleison.  Christe Eleison.

Your petitions and advice are welcome.

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