The Whole Teacher: A Process In Process – Chris Mares
Teaching is necessarily dependent on a knowledge base and an array of skills that need to be practiced and internalized over time. Certainly we can be ‘trained’ as teachers in a mechanical and procedural sense but this is not enough to become ‘whole’ as a teacher. We also need to develop authentic relationships with ourselves, our colleagues, and those we teach. To be whole as teachers, we must be whole as people – we must love ourselves, forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves. I don’t believe this notion of wholeness can be taught but I do believe it can come over time and for each teacher the time it takes will vary.
A whole teacher not only has all the knowledge and skills necessary to teach, they also have something more. They have ‘presence’, a complex quality, which is dependent upon a particular way of being. The Whole Teacher is present reflectively and authentically. She or he is mindful, sensitive and aware, open and adaptable.
In order to become present it is necessary to let go of many things, especially those that interfere with the process of teaching or learning. A list might include fears, anxieties and the need to be right or in control. This letting go process takes time and requires mindfulness.
Beginning teachers understandably spend a lot of time consumed by their own anxieties and fears which can range from concerns about having enough material, issues regarding classroom management, whether a class will go well, and whether students will like and respect them. This is natural and is part of the process of becoming a teacher, but too much concern can deplete the presence of the teacher and therefore negatively interfere with the essential experience of teaching and learning.
At a basic level teaching is a form of performance in the same way that improv and stand up comedy are performances. A successful performance depends on a keen sensitivity to the audience, an ability to change direction or dwell on a potentially fruitful moment. Teaching is about making choices sequentially in real time and then reacting to the consequences of making a particular choice. It is not a lock step process. Opportunities arise and when they do we should take them. By performance, I don’t mean the adoption of a role that isn’t authentic to the teacher but being present in a heightened way. Much like a good storyteller who, by being present, transforms a story, making it memorable and meaningful on a new level. The Whole Teacher does this, too.
Teaching is relational and depends on trust and connection with students. It requires consistency, reliability, and a degree of unpredictability. In short, teaching is an art and as such it takes time and effort to become as good as you can be. To be The Whole Teacher you have to go on the journey and part of the beauty and pleasure of it is that you never ‘get there’ as it is a process of becoming, of unfolding.
When I work with new teachers I find that one of the most reassuring messages that I can give is that it is perfectly fine to not know something or to be uncertain about something. What is important is how we react to our own not knowing or uncertainty. When asked a tricky grammar question by a student, it is far more productive to admit you don’t know the answer and clearly state that you know where you can find the answer and that you will. Following through and offering the answer or explanation creates trust and builds the connection. This is the type of step that a teacher needs to take and to become comfortable with in order to develop presence.
Another ‘permission’ that is always received well by trainee teachers is the permission to be yourself as a teacher. You are who you are. Know yourself. It is not possible to teach authentically trying to be someone else. We should learn from others, borrow techniques, emulate certain behaviors and practices but as ourselves.
In order to be present we have to listen and observe and we have to do it empathetically and sympathetically. To do this meaningfully, it is worth putting oneself in the student’s shoes. For example, I know how cognitively demanding and also physically exhausting learning a new language can be, but it wasn’t until I recently began attending the Monday lunchtime ‘French Table’ at the University of Maine, where interested parties could bring their lunch and practice French, that I was reminded of how draining it is to try to drag vocabulary from the recesses of your mind or respond to questions you only partially understand.
We are not static entities. Our lives unfold, we are socialized, educated, we work, patterns develop, possibilities occur, mistakes are made, our bodies change, and, over time, we get to the place we are now. We are a process in process. The Whole Teacher develops presence during this process through mindfulness. This mindfulness comes from a stepping back and letting go of anxieties and fears. It relies on trust, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness, the maintenance of authentic relationships and an unflagging belief in the fact that what we do is worth doing.
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