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Nov 30, 2012

Join the teaching profession, become a selfish bastard

TEIL, the Teacher Education Innovation Lab is one of my favorite parts of this job. It is very low-key; we just come and talk, but it always gives me an idea or two to ponder. Today, for example, we started with how to get across our messages in the overcrowded information space – to our students and to potential students. Then we somehow switched to the messages themselves. And then the idea of joy of teaching came back again – we discussed it before, more than a year ago. That is when we came up with the humorous tagline (we had a few others).

However, there is something very serious about it, too. The teaching profession is dominated by the hefty language of self-sacrifice and service, and it is just not healthy. The martyr squad is easy to respect, but its ranks are not easy to fill. The thing is – there is a lot of fun and stimulation, and novelty to teaching, especially if you know how to find it. It is never dull and boring, and it makes one’s brain work all the time. The kids are never the same, and there is energy that is coming from them. But the complication is – these joys are largely an acquired taste. We’re not born with many of them. But we do not teach our students to cultivate the taste for these little joys. There is nothing about it in our professional standards, no evidence of it in our instruments or statements of belief; we do not measure or recognize the importance of it. Our training is all about behavior, all about performance, but we rarely ask where the high performance comes from. What is the internal motivator for teachers? If it is not fame or money, then what is it exactly? The privilege of serving others is just not enough. Teachers have to actively look for opportunities to enjoy what they do; they should train themselves to be stimulated, entertained, and transformed by their jobs. For real connoisseurs, school is better than the movies, more interesting than fiction, more engaging than exotic vacations.

We’re still fairly fuzzy on the language here. Clearly, not all kinds of enjoyment are appropriate (“Oh, I had such an easy day today” clearly does not cut). Narcissism is not good for teaching. And yet we all agreed that the ability to see the non-monetary benefits of the profession brings is very important. Would it not make our Conceptual Framework distinctive and unique, if we included something like that? Even if we manage to turn our students’ gaze inward for at least some time, - would it not be great? It is just so important to know oneself, and to know what makes one tick. Imagine a conversation between a supervisor and a teacher candidate after a lesson observation:

“At what point did you feel stimulated, engaged, excited today? Why do you think it happened? How long did it last? Did it help you to perform better? Did children also benefit from it? Did you learn something about yourself, and what motivates you? Do you know how to replicate this?”

Nov 16, 2012

Yes, you can go home again

Strange things are brought back from trips home. I am not sure if Thomas Wolfe’s truism, you can't go home again, is really true. He implied that as we change, we can go home physically, but there is no way to return to the earlier state of being. One of my friends says nostalgia is about time, not place. Yes, OK, but it is only true if you think the point of going home is to go back into a happier state. I think past is a wild territory, full of treasures and dangers. It is an adventure, not a search for the paradise lost.

For example, I just realized this week that I really like dark, cold, snowy nights – not in any kind of a metaphorical or nostalgic sense. No, I just physically enjoy the cold on my face, and the squeaking dry snow of snow under my boots, and the peculiar sensation of gasping for air in the wind. Our minds are weird, weird machines. We can override the basic physiological distinction between pain and pleasure. We can learn to hate what must feel pleasant to others and love what should feel like discomfort. Old pains are new pleasures. I enjoyed the smell of cheap gasoline leaking through badly tuned engine of an old truck. Why? Because I remember riding in the cab of one of those trucks as a child, over an endless white road in the Siberian country side. Don’t remember why and with whom, but the smell brings me there. You are wrong, Thomas Wolfe, I still can find my Siberia; not all of it, but enough to know it’s there.

Moscow too has changed much. It became a sophisticated worldly metropolis, rivaling Paris, Berlin, and London. It is a city of $10 lattes and free WiFi in every café, of expensive cars stuck in traffic jams, and well-dressed multilingual crowds. And then suddenly a glimpse of subway tile teleports me somewhere else in an instant. From within the stranger’s face, familiar features emerge, of a much simpler city where we lived in the late 80-s. And I begin to recognize my Muscovites – their peculiar gait, their fast talk with certain vowels swallowed, and others unduly stretched. They talk to themselves on earpieces, but these are the same people.

I saw my father’s grave, found my old rasp, my mother’s wardrobe, talked to my teacher Nelli Petrovna; still sharp and curious. It is all still there, all of it. To find it, I just need to go home once in a while, and look.