Saturday, September 24, 2011

It has been said that 'All writing is rewriting'. 

I'd like to apply that to teaching: 'All teaching is reteaching' - and sometimes, reteaching and reteaching again. 

My writing students, right now, are confused. I watched them leave the classroom on Tuesday, nodding as if they understood the answers but with a glazed, fixed expression that always indicates uncertainty. Adding to the general air of confusion were their questions: halting, random questions that had little to do with the topic asked, questions that I'd hoped they would know the answers to by the end of class. Clearly, they didn't know the answers. 

All this confusion is my fault. It is my responsibility as a teacher to clearly communicate the skills I want my students to learn, and if they do not clearly grasp these skills, I have made an error. I wager that this error is not limited to me, that I am not the only teacher ever to have confused my students. Which is what brings me to the conclusion that 'All teaching is reteaching.'

We teachers confuse our students. It's part of being a human teacher. (Even Christ's students were confused, but I suspect that was more their spiritual ignorance than the Master Teacher's incompetence, so we'll leave that out of the picture). In our teaching mind we bear an image of the truth or concept or skill we want students to grasp, we create activities and lectures to communicate that skill, and then in the hubbub of words that accompanies those lectures the gist of the skill or the concept is lost, and students are confused. T.S. Eliot complained that as a poet 'It [was] impossible to say just what I mean' and we teachers read him and say Amen, brother

If you are a teacher, you know what I'm talking about, you know how often you have to reteach, and you know (like I do) that 'All teaching is reteaching'.  Instead of belaboring the point, let me move on to its logical conclusion: the attitude that accompanies the belief that all teaching is indeed reteaching. 

Reteaching is about humility. 

My very first semester teaching, I confused students continually. Papers turned in were wildly different than what I'd expected, and I did not give out a single 'A' that semester. I complained to friends about a perceived lack of ability in the students and for weeks reassured myself that each lesson had been quite clear about my expectations on the paper. My lesson weren't clear at all, but at that point I hadn't the humility to admit that I was failing as a teacher. 

It takes humility to admit we made an error, that we are not the Best Teacher Ever since Jesus and Socrates. (humility, of course, that I don't have in abundance). But once admitted, we teachers can get back to helping our students improve as writers or mathematicians or geologists or whatever - as long as they are improving, and not falling deeper into a pit of confusion that we ourselves are digging.

Reteaching is about communication. 

I sat at the table this afternoon carefully wording and rewording the assignment guidelines for my students' next papers. Eventually, I ran the guidelines past my cousin, who is still in college. She listened carefully, then said this:  'That sentence would be really clear for you, but your students are not going to understand it at all'. I had to reword it. 

John 1 tells us that 'the Word was God', a name that suggests He was the clear, flawless communication of God to humanity. And this communication of God 'became flesh and dwelt among us', became a 'thing in the real world' - simple enough for flesh-and-blood humans to understand. It is tempting for us teachers, having spent years of training in our field, to soar upwards towards the esoteric and intangible, but this is not biblical communication. What we reteachers must work on (even the first time) is making our subject - however esoteric - a thing in the real world that every student can grasp. 

More can be said, I'm sure, in favour of reteaching. For me, however, these two attitudes are crucial: the attitude of humility and desire to change, the willingness to refine and hone my communication until it is no longer abstract but real to students. 

Now, I'm off to live in the real world myself - and then to do some reteaching next week. Here are a few photos, as always, to finish off with:

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