Friday, July 27, 2012

Teaching, and Doing It Right

I want to start out today by thanking everyone who took the time to comment on my last post or to send me an email about my decision to step back from the Master Spinner Program.  The last couple of weeks have been very difficult for me, running the gamut from a giddy sense of freedom to deep guilt and regret.  Your kind words and support have been a great source of comfort and equilibrium as I am going through the adjustment.

Another part of the adjustment from busy college instructor to independent fibre artiste has been a great deal of navel gazing on the subject of teaching.  Do I want to continue to teach?  What do I want to teach?  Why do I want to teach?  HOW do I want to teach?

I have come to realize that I have some pretty strong beliefs about teaching and what it takes to actually be a teacher.  I am not talking about educational theory, or pedagogical techniques.  I am talking about the act of teaching.

Over the years, I have seen great teaching and I have seen terrible teaching.  I have seen these teachers in elementary and high school classrooms, in colleges and universities, in festival workshops and in seminars.  I have been inspired and nurtured, and I have been discouraged and even bullied.  I have taken the observations and lessons from all of these teachers and distilled them into my own style of teaching, and here is what I believe:

Teaching is a selfless act.  Teaching involves setting aside your own ego, your own beliefs, your own need for power and attention, and giving your students what they need to succeed.  Teaching means looking at a topic you may know inside and out with fresh eyes every time.  Teaching means taking things you think you know apart to look at the tiny details, then reassembling those things with others watching.

Teaching is NOT the act of imposing your beliefs, ideologies, and dogmas upon your students.  Teaching is not a power trip.  Teaching is not a marketing tool for your products. Teaching is not a road to fame and glory.

Teaching is a shared journey with your students.  Being a teacher means that you have to look at the topic from both your point of view and experience and the student's point of view and inexperience.  It means putting aside your own assumptions and judgemental tendencies.  It means being immensely patient and accepting of the faults and foibles of others.  Being a teacher is like being a parent; you have to put the interests of others before yours to do it successfully.

A passion for or a deep knowledge of a topic does not make a great teacher, though it certainly helps.  An enthusiasm for sharing something you love does not make a great teacher,  though this helps, too.  What makes a great teacher is the willingness to travel on the students' journey.  The willingness to embrace the needs of others and fulfill them.

I have tried over the years to live up to these beliefs.  I have not always succeeded, but with every class, I strive towards these ideals.  I have several friends who are  great teachers, both as fibre workers and in the public school systems, and they also aim towards these ideals.  They understand that teaching is not for the teacher, it is for the student, and I have seen some remarkable acts of generosity from these great human beings.

Now, not every teacher will be a great teacher, but the really good ones are working hard and learning and striving to become great.  Some of them use humour to overcome weaknesses, or take summer classes to brush up on topics they have not mastered.  Others find a niche where their strengths are better used and their weaknesses matter less.  Some find that a particular grade or a type of school is better suited to their style and strengths and they choose to teach there.  Others choose to write textbooks rather than present in a classroom.   Still others have found a place in on-line delivery.  There are many options and  many routes to great teaching.  Good and great teachers seek these options out and try them on until they find the one that fits.

And for those who are teaching who do not strive to place the student first, who cannot meet curriculum requirements because they conflict with personal beliefs, who pass out colouring sheets for "art class", who believe that belittling a student forces them to work harder to prove themselves...for you, I have this to say:  The world would be a better place if you stopped teaching. It really would.

Step aside and let the teachers who really want to TEACH do their job.

In the words of that great teacher, Yoda, "Do or do not.  There is no try."

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Not the Blog Post You Were Hoping For

For the past 5 years, I have had the great pleasure of teaching for Olds College's Master Spinner Program as well as serving as the Fibre Arts Program Coordinator for Fibre Week. I have learned more in the past 5 years than I ever did as a student in the program, and I have had the great joy of leading literally hundreds of students to their "aha! moments". I have travelled to places I had never considered seeing, and met wonderful people, many of whom I now consider friends.  I have taken great responsibility for the Program and the well-being of its students.  I have been treated as part of the team by the administrators.  I have been blessed.

This has meant that I have kept a demanding teaching schedule, often prepping for the next session as I was travelling from the last class.  I have also worked as a volunteer on the module revisions for the MSP.  And as the volunteer Fibre Arts Coordinator for Fibre Week (a full-time job in and of itself).  I have become embroiled in the day to day operations of the Master Spinner Program and in the minutiae of Fibre Week arrangements.  And I have maintained a schedule of private workshops, as well.  I have been, well, busy.

And while all of this was going on, I had a life going on outside of spinning, too.  I have had loved ones with cancer and others with chronic illness,  I have had serious injury and family crises. I have had plumbing problems and renovation nightmares.  I have had bills and groceries and laundry and car pools.

So, along comes Fibre Week, where I not only taught several workshops, but performed my above-and-beyond duties as Coordinator, emceed the fashion show, subbed for a teacher who needed to run out for a medical appointment, counselled students, problem-solved with the administrative team, started planning for 2013, and generally ran myself ragged.  And I did a poor job of all of these things.  I was running on fumes, faking it all the way.  Everything was harder than it had to be--minor concerns became crises, setbacks became panics, each little discussion became a battle.  All of those little problems that we encounter every day quickly became catastrophes.  There were things that I simply could not cope with.  There was something seriously wrong.

And what was wrong was me.  I may have mentioned that I'm tired.  My perspective was skewed, my organizational skills were warped, and even my usually sharp wit was getting duller and duller.  Then, on top of everything else, I got hit with a stomach bug midweek.  By Friday, I was a zombie--and not the fun, flesh-eating kind.  Just a staring, shuffling, mindless husk.

The long drive home gave me plenty of time to think.  And think I did.  I thought about the dozens of students I had taught over the years.  I thought about the MSP modules and the changes that I have been working on and those that still need to be made.  I though about the planning for 2013.  I thought about my co-workers, my friends, the townhouses, the travel, the weather, the food, the fibre.  And I thought about myself.  For the first time in years, I thought about what I want.  And what I want is a rest.

I thought about taking a week or two and then rolling back into things--I was scheduled to be in Michigan in three weeks--but I've done that before and found myself up to my neck in paperwork and emails and phone calls before I even knew what was happening.  I had to pull the plug.  I have resigned from the Master Spinner instructor roster and I have ended my commitment to the module review for now.  I will be continuing in my role as Fibre Arts Program Coordinator until a replacement is found, but then I will be stepping away from that, too.  I have to cut myself completely off for a while, or I will just start doing all the things again. It is all too easy to get caught up in the needs of the program, of the students, to feel responsible for everything.  I have to step away.

This is a massive change for me, and I am grieving the loss in my life right now. A warm word would go a long way, if you have one to spare for me.  But I will recover, and I will continue to teach.  I will get around to finishing those articles that I haven't had time for and submit them to publications.  I will make things.  And the Master Spinner Program will go on.  I hope that my students will all continue on and become the great spinners I know they can be.  I hope that other instructors will step up and take on some of the duties I have been performing over the past few years.  And I hope that, in time, I will rest and recoup and reclaim my energy and get to a place where I can revisit the Master Spinner Program and they will have me back.

But, for now, I rest.