March 3rd, 2017 – One of my favorite teaching texts is a short quote from Terry and Renny Russell, two brothers who came of age exploring the canyons and rivers of the desert southwest. In their book On The Loose they write: “One of the best-paying professions is getting ahold of pieces of country in your mind, learning their smell and their moods… It feels good to say ‘I know the Sierra’ or ‘I know Point Reyes.’ But of course you don’t—what you know better is yourself, and Point Reyes and the Sierra have helped”.
My personal interests and educational background is grounded in the natural sciences so the brother’s reference to “pieces of country” resonates with my academic and lived experience. The natural world, ecological processes, and nature-based metaphors are important sense making strategies in my teaching. When I walk into a classroom with the eyes of a naturalist I’m often looking for interconnections, patterns, unique contributions of individuals, and shifting centers of generative energy; for me the components of a vibrant classroom ecology.
In the field of curriculum studies Christy Moroye calls the similarities between the inner dispositions of the teacher and the external curriculum of texts, assignments, and assessment the “complimentary curriculum”. In essence, the heart of the teacher and the pedagogical space are one and the same, which creates an authenticity that students sense and are drawn to. There is little difference, except location, between my curiosities about the natural world and my observations of interconnected learning in a college classroom. I don’t intend to reduce student and teacher behavior in the classroom to the scientific and mechanistic metaphor of ecology; that would not do justice to the complexity of deep learning as faculty and students mutually interrogate a text, and each other, as they form and sharpen their instructional relationship.
To paraphrase the Russell brothers, it feels good to say that I know the classroom or I know my students. This type of pedagogical knowing is contingent on a sort of deep observational intimacy similar to the way the brothers learned to read and respond to the land they were traveling through. In the classroom this close read of learners is essential to effective teaching as faculty adjust, revamp, and retool their curriculum and instructional style to more effectively match their instructional intentions to the varied learning needs of students. But as the opening quote suggests, knowing the classroom is only half of the story. The rest of the narrative is the process by which deep observation and instructional intimacy changes the self-perception of the teacher.
Teachers teach with the hope of changing students intellectually and emotionally but change can and does happen both ways; at the end of a class the teacher is changed commensurate with her level of deep engagement with students. Again paraphrasing Terry and Renny Russell, it feels good to say that I know the classroom or I know my students. But of course I don’t—what I know better is my teaching self and my students have helped.