I was going to write another very cliched topic today and do something about the New Year but then last night I got to thinking about teachers I have had instead, and teaching I have done. I’m gonna do that one instead. I’m not entirely sure what brought the topic to mind, other than perhaps thinking about all the learning I have done over the past year.
I really did need to learn a lot, especially as the publication of The King in Darkness got closer, and then happened. I had to learn about how to work with editors, and my publisher. I had to learn how to start using social media to try to market myself, and how to interact with ‘the public’ at events and book signings. That is still very much a work in progress, but it’s been a lot of fun learning as much as I have.
I have been blessed by having some excellent teachers in my life. I had an English literature teacher in high school who knew I wanted to write and wrote ‘You are a writer’ on some probably-not-very-good thing I had done for her class. Even though it took me quite a long time to prove her right I guess, I never forgot seeing those words and the encouragement they gave me that I really was ok at putting words together. She obviously didn’t need to do that but she took the time to give a not-very-confident kid a pat on the head and it helped a lot.
Teachers can have a lot of power that way. I had a student a few years back in one of my classes who would almost literally light up if you told her she had done something well. I’m not sure what had happened in her life to get her to the point where a little praise would mean so much, but I hope it helped a little to hear it a few times. I still feel that some of my problems in math trace back to a grade school teacher who told me I was really bad at it; that made Young Me want to avoid math like the plague and led to the subject not getting the attention it probably needed from me. A bad teacher can do a lot of damage. The right teacher at the right time can give you the push you need to achieve something you might not have ever done, otherwise. Sometimes they’ll change the whole direction of your life.
I was an English major at university and took a medieval history course as an elective. The professor invited me to take an advanced seminar the next semester, and after that suggested I think about changing my major. I ended up doing a double major and going on to do postgraduate history degrees. That’s a lot of influence from the person at the front of the classroom. (If it isn’t clear, I’m very glad I happened to take that elective)
Because of that, I’m very cautious about what I feel comfortable saying I can teach people. Partly, I sort of like the idea that teachers should wait for students to come to them; if you’re constantly trying to push things you’ve learned on people who don’t particularly want to learn it you’re just being annoying. On the other hand, if someone asks you a question, you share what you know. I guess obviously that model doesn’t work very well for institutional education (we think there are certain things that should be compulsory to learn. Maybe there should be? That’s probably a whole other blog entry) but I like it for my personal approach. (Before you ask, I feel all right about the blog because everyone chooses to come read the thing, or not)
I also wouldn’t want to claim to be able to teach anything that I don’t feel that I have a reasonable level of competence at and about which I can communicate that understanding well. I like to do archery. I’m nowhere near competent enough to teach it to anyone. I could probably teach something about writing, and I know I can teach history. Someone on LinkedIn claims I know about social media. I’m not entirely convinced I have anything I can teach you about that, really.
I really believe that a good teacher can make just about any subject compelling and engaging for a student, just as a bad teacher can make just about anything boring or impossible to learn. Some of it is enthusiasm for the subject, some of it depth of knowledge, and some of it is the ability to communicate that understanding in easily grasped concepts. It’s unfortunate in a lot of contexts that having a skill (say, writing) and the ability to teach that skill are not precisely the same thing. Frustratingly, sometimes people who are really good at things aren’t very good at teaching them. I know I’m not very good at teaching English grammar – I understand it in a very intuitive way (I know when a sentence looks or feels correct, and I’m usually right) but I can’t always clearly articulate why it is right or wrong, which is not very useful for teaching purposes. This was a problem trying to help fellow students work on their essays, and I know I’m still not great at giving feedback on grammar when I grade papers now. I ran into the opposite side of that trying to learn math a lot of times. My friends would intuitively know how to solve a particular problem and it would just seem like sorcery to me.
That issue taught me, quite early on, that ‘easy’ and ‘obvious’ are very fluid concepts. It’s good to keep in mind that what is dead simple for me may be really difficult for someone else to unpick. That’s important in my writing, I think – things that are to me glaringly obvious may not be that way for every reader. This is where my Eager Volunteers and Lovely Editors are absolutely invaluable, and why having extra pairs of eyes on anything we write is so important. I think it’s really very cool that people have such different perceptions of things; in my more fanciful imaginings I wonder if this is part of how human society kind of works – each different task has different people who find them easy, which allows everything to get done in the end.
Of course, they keep trying to teach people like me algebra anyway. Although there is something to be said for the experience of trying to learn something you’re not very good at, maybe especially if you’re going to be a teacher.
Teaching and learning are processes that feed into each other. Being a student helps you figure out how to teach, and vice versa. I think I learned a lot about teaching from my trainer at the gym, who is an extremely patient dude and taught me a great deal, and not just about fitness. Watching him work really hard at trying to help me learn how to deadlift gave me a whole new insight into what it is like to be a student who is not very good at what they are trying to learn (that would be me, in this example) and how the teacher can try to find ways to help them. I think I’ll be better at helping students who struggle with standard deviations (or whatever) whenever I’m back in a classroom because of this. My deadlift is better than it was, too.
All right. That’s a big blorp of words and probably everyone is still tired from the holidays. We’ll call it here for the week. I have a lot to learn as the New Year rolls up on us. I still need to work on this whole self-marketing deal. I like to think that we’re not ever done learning, which means we also constantly need new teachers. With luck, I’ll be both learning and teaching right up until my last day on the planet. I hope you will as well.
Good luck in the year ahead. Thanks for reading.