July 28th, 2011

Teaching with Style: A Unique Integration of the Personal and the Professional


I keep one of my all-time favorite teaching books here at our place on the lake. It has a lovely title: Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach. It’s a collection of essays written by educators at all levels. In each essay, the writer introduces a favorite poem—one with significance for that teacher’s life and work. The essays and poems are wonderfully inspirational and motivating. It’s a great book for reading along side the lake.

Here’s an example. The essayist is Edward Alan Katz, identified as a middle school English teacher. His poem is one by Robert Herrick called “Delight in Disorder.” It’s about a woman the poet finds especially attractive. She dresses with “sweet disorder” —a bit of lace here and there, something draped over her shoulders, peeks of petticoat showing—which all together the poet finds positively bewitching.

For Katz the poem is really about the difference between style and fashion. He invokes the famous designer Coco Chanel who observed “la mode change, le style rest” (fashion changes, style remains) and goes on to explain “fashion is imposed from without while style is created from within.” (p. 174)

“If Chanel is right, teachers today should be skeptical of pedagogical fads and educational reforms. Socrates had no textbooks, used no chalkboards, gave no homework. His tests were not standardized but individualized, challenging each student to question anything, define everything and measure all things by reason. Teachers could find no better model for excellence.” (p. 174)

I’m not totally on board with everything in that quote. I’m pretty much in favor of educational reform although I buy responding to it with skepticism. I’d also be reluctant to advocate abandoning homework, given today’s college students, but I think these examples illustrate his larger point. Good teaching is not always enhanced by what we put on or add to it, especially those “fashionable” educational ideas everyone clamors to adopt. Teaching’s integrity and essence derive from something other than accoutrements. Teaching should express style, not fashion.

“I believe that effective teaching is an expression of the personality—the prism through which character is refracted. The challenge in the classroom is to integrate the content of the curriculum with the content of character. Discovering and developing a personal style is the essence of sound teaching and successful learning.” (p. 174)

What telling words! They remind us how much teaching expresses who we are. Our strong focus on content—the stuff we teach—makes it difficult to see how our identity wraps around what we teach. It’s even harder to sort out the details that make the way we interact with that content and students unique—different from the way others manage the same interactions. A lot of teachers try to be the same. They select the content, assignments, activities, policies and assessment methods their colleagues use. Many of us began teaching with the lofty ambition of emulating our favorite teacher. It is only as teachers grow and mature that they come to recognize the insight contained in the quote.

Good teaching is an authentic representation of individual identity—a unique integration of the personal and the professional. It is teaching with style and it can be a powerful motivator for learners who not only want their teacher’s knowledge, but see their teachers as the persons they aspire to become.

Reference: Intrator, S. M. and Scribner, M. (eds.). Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.