Examining a Teaching Life

I haven’t found too many pedagogical articles worth a regular re-read. Christa Walck’s “A Teaching Life” is a notable exception. It’s a soul-searching, personal narrative that confronts the difference between what a teaching life can be and what it is.

Walck’s analysis was prompted by Annie Dillard’s exploration of her life as a writer, The Writing Life. Walck explains, “What I found myself trying to discover was this: Is there more to teaching than content and delivery, technique—didactic or experiential—and evaluation?” “I have been thinking about teaching, not as a task or a job, or even a vocation but as a life, a way of being and doing that constructs who I am.” (p. 473) In a footnote she points out how strongly we are connected to what we teach, in her case, management, and how that keeps us from broader thinking about teaching.Teaching Professor Blog

It’s not an easy article—complex, deep, thoughtful, and often anguished. It begins with a metaphor Dillard uses, originally from Thoreau, about how we start life with lofty expectations, thinking we’ve got the materials to build a bridge to the moon. By middle age, we’re constructing woodsheds. That aptly describes how Walck feels about her teaching. She has the materials—the possibilities and the power to largely determine what, how, and when she teaches. “On plenty of days I feel competent, even inspired. The stars are properly aligned, my head is clear … I have something important to say, something that will change lives. Or I have thought of something interesting to do. . . .” (p. 476) On other days, “I am tired; my head is somewhere else; I wonder what I am doing here. I have spent hours thinking about a class, but I have nothing to impart. I drag myself into class, tail between my legs.” (p. 476)

A lot of what happens on any given day in a class does depend on the teacher, but an equal amount depends on the students. We all do better when those we face are alert, engaged, asking questions, and eager to learn. Students like that build the bridge with us. But most of Walck’s classes (and ours) aren’t filled with students interested in large building projects. They’re happy to hang out in woodsheds. “I wonder how I can cross the border from ordinary life, ordinary class—teacher here, students there, text there—into an extraordinary place where learning occurs.” (p. 477)

The piece also explores failure—those we experience and those we ignore. “When you risk invention, when you put yourself out there beyond the lesson plan, you must quietly accept that failure is part of the process and the process takes time.” (p. 476) Most of us are heavily invested in how we teach—the syllabus that has evolved across the years, that collection of readings carefully culled from a sea of possibilities, favorite assignments, exercises, and the way we test. Oh sure, we’re not opposed to implementing a few changes around the edge, but nothing really big gets altered. “I realized that clinging to these artifacts cloistered me and weakened the work, weakened the teaching.” (p. 477)

No, this isn’t a bright, sunny tribute to the wonders of teaching. The place Walck finds herself is not one where teachers can afford to spend a lot of time. But it is a place we need to visit. We settle for woodsheds too easily; telling ourselves that it’s all we can build, given who we teach, how much we teach, where we teach, and sometimes what we teach. “What kind of life will put me back on that bridge I was building to the moon? It is time to climb atop the woodsheds I have built and dream on.” (p. 475)

In her search for a way back Walck, returns to the writing life. “Dillard is wonderfully direct about the difficulty of such a life, about her flight from the difficulty of writing as well as the relentless and inevitable attraction that pulls her toward it. This is how my teaching life proceeds as well. An ebb and flow, a retreat to recover, sort it out, to renew and ready myself for the next surge forward. This is how teaching creates a life.” (pp. 481-2)

Reference: Walck, C. L., (1997). A teaching life. Journal of Management Education, 21 (4), 473-482