This article first appeared in the teacher teacher September 13, 2021. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. Use promo code NEWYEAR59 to get your teacher teacher annual subscription for only $100! Expires on 02.04.2022 at midnight.
Originally, I added a few lines of a prose poem at the end of compiling readers’ responses to our questions about questions teachers ask students. I was not sure; the content matched, but it was poetry. My excellent editor called it a “diversion,” a well-chosen word that describes rapid movements in unexpected directions. Deviations are risky and unsettling experiences. Poetry rarely appears in academic writing, even in informal writing as a chronicle of teaching and learning. We decided to remove the poetic ending.
It was another poem, “Awakening” by Suzanne Le-May Sheffield, that motivated me to include the lines of the poem in prose. Suzanne’s poem was recently published in Teaching and learning survey, a peer-reviewed teaching and learning scholarship. His poem explores how the academy affects our humanity. In a comment that follows, Suzanne recounts her feelings about sharing the poem and the feedback she received after submitting it. It’s a compelling tale that reflects how the academy struggles to deal with affective ways of knowing.
The dominant orientation of teaching remains the intellectual orientation. Pedagogical expertise rests firmly and comfortably on content knowledge. Nevertheless, most of us have learned that we cannot fuel a teaching career with intellect alone. Despite this recognition, we struggle to find academic venues where we can write and speak freely about how the teaching touches, builds on, and yes, even embraces our humanity.
Our long attempts to achieve teaching recognition have spawned and developed Scholarship for Teaching and Learning (SoTL), an achievement worth celebrating. SoTL’s work has broadened the reach and improved the quality of educational journals that exist in virtually every field, some across disciplinary and international boundaries. Rising publishing standards now include blind peer reviews and detailed editorial requirements that weed out all but the best submissions. Strong research reports advance our knowledge of teaching and learning. Pedagogical innovations are examined and evaluated empirically.
Even so, if you ask professors what their favorite papers are, the best things read about teaching and learning, research papers don’t top their list or mine. Rather, we refer to personal accounts, first-person accounts, and analyzes of meaningful teaching experiences – articles that explore what teachers aspire to achieve beyond content knowledge (Husted, 2001), which confess mistakes and failures (Cohen, 2009), challenge long-held assumptions (Tanner, 2011), and describe ‘angry’ feelings about a life as a teacher (Walck, 1997).
The first teaching newsletter I edited contained different types of articles – research summaries, resources on different teaching topics, short essays, accounts of experiments with teaching strategies. tutoring and interviews with master teachers. Any remaining space I filled with concise quotes on teaching and learning. In my first readership survey, I asked professors to rank the different types of articles. To my amazement, these quotes made it to the top of the list. Apparently, they filled a personal need in addition to occupying an empty space.
I don’t expect our academic journals to start publishing poetry or adding citations, but I do wish there was a greater openness to work that delves into what is described as the “more sweet” of teaching. This reflection demeans a part of teaching that is just as robust as the acquisition of complex content. There are no emotional fluff involved in the difficult mental effort it takes to critically dissect a teaching experience or tell the story of a difficult discovery on the path to teaching excellence. “Disturbing the still surface of deep water makes us fully human,” writes Suzanne in “Awakening.”
Poetry packs more punch than prose. It can cause you to swerve, suddenly stop, and feel something unexpected. The editors of Teach with fire (2003) asked high school and college teachers to choose a poem that had meaning for them as teachers. The poems appear on one page; opposite, the teachers reveal the reasons for their choices. Every time I look at the book, I am amazed and thrilled with what the teaching is for others and what it has been for me.
We need to touch the soul of the teaching more often, and “Awakening” explains how:
Let us welcome the different, varied, disordered stories,
Take risks, share moments of struggle,
Be bold and courageous, personal and vulnerable,
Create, transform, reflect, perform,
See beauty and tragedy,
Accepting our humanity in the academy.
Maryellen Weimer is Emeritus Professor of Teaching and Learning at Penn State Berks and won Penn State’s Milton S. Eisenhower Award for Distinguished Teaching in 2005. Weimer has consulted with more than 600 colleges and universities on teaching issues and regularly facilitates national meetings and regional conferences..
Cohan, M. (2009). Rotten Apple: The Social Production and Subsequent Rehabilitation of a Bad Teacher. Change, 41(6), 32–36. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20696191
Husted, BL (2001). Hope, for the dry side. University English, 64(2), 243–249. https://doi.org/10.2307/1350121
Intrator, SM, & Scribner, M. (Eds.). (2003). Teaching with fire: Poetry that sustains the courage to teach. Jossey Bass.
Sheffield, SL-M. (2020). Awakening (to all of our SoTL stories). Teaching and Learning Survey, 8(2), 221–223. https://doi.org/10.20343/teachlearninqu.8.2.14 [open access]
Tanner, KD (2011). Reconsider “what works”. CBE—Teaching Life Sciences, 10(4), 329–333. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.11-09-0085 [open access]
Walck, CL (1997). A teacher’s life. Journal of Management Education, 21(4), 473–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/105256299702100403