The Grizzled Teacher: A look at why we do what we do in teaching.

An educator who has more years in the profession than most have on Earth looks at why we do what we do in teaching.

When I prepare to teach a class, I always think of the “5Ws and an H.” Who, what, when, where, why, and how. We can look at the broad profession of teaching using the same guiding questions. However, primus inter pares – first among equals – is “Why?” If we are clear about why we teach, then we have a solid base, and who, what, when, where, and how will flow naturally to give a more complete picture upon which we can build in future Grizzled Teacher posts.

If all goes well (which to a grizzled teacher means waking up with only a few odd aches in unexpected places), these periodic posts will dive into issues of teaching and learning using the 5 Ws and an H as our guide.

quotation markWhen I prepare to teach a class, I always think of the ‘5Ws and an H.’ Who, what, when, where, why, and how.”

We can look at WHY through several lenses to sharpen the complete image.

We can look at it through the lens of our students.

camera lens

  • Why is a teacher useful to them?
  • Does the teacher really matter?
  • Can the student do as well (however you define doing well) going online and learning from slides and reading a book instead of working with us?
  • What void do teachers fill?

 

We can look through the lens of the institution.

  • Why are teachers important at NDSU and similar public universities?
  • Nationwide, do hiring trends among faculty and other instructional staff jibe with the purposes we claim?

We can look at it through the lens of employers or the taxpayers, or other groups who share at least a part of their lens.

And we can look at it from within – the passion that drives each of us to teach.

In this post, my focus is why working with students is helpful to society. I’m painting the bigger picture.

The motivation: Do you want to know?
Why do we want to put our students in a position to want to know – to see knowledge as both useful and worth passionately pursuing? The easy answer is so that our students can get a job. On the surface, that suggests our role is of a trade school rather than a more comprehensive 1 university representing the collective intellect of North Dakota, Minnesota, and other nifty places.

Why do we call our place “comprehensive,” with its nod to being broad-based? Because knowledge and its uses are comprehensive as our students navigate life both personally and as a part of a complex societal ship that sometimes feels as if it’s sinking a little deeper every day. We’re depending upon our students to right the ship.

1 I’m using “comprehensive” as “all-encompassing,” rather than its more technical definition of regional, often former teaching college, that awards master’s degrees.

Addressing the threat.
As a grizzled veteran, I am afraid. I see how “knowing” as a process is now threatened in our country. Science, which is, by definition, a rational way of knowing how the world (and beyond) works, is under assault, especially via budget cuts and restrictions on what knowledge can be shared. This has practical consequences on a global scale. All our students need to know how to know, which, for me, says that they need to know science as a process.

They also need to know history as a process and as something that helps explain and give context to our current experience.

quotation markAs a grizzled veteran, I am afraid. I see how ‘knowing’ as a process is now threatened in our country.”

They need to know how to read, write, speak, and interpret English, the default language of communication worldwide, so they can interact and understand the ideas of others. (I regret my inability to speak and read Spanish well, which would have made my life so much richer, given the places I’ve lived and the professional connections I have throughout Latin America.) Related to that is “Argumentation,” a burgeoning field. It doesn’t teach how to argue. Rather, it teaches how to formulate ideas clearly, and how to accurately interpret the ideas of others.

Universities are bursting at the seams with the knowledge of a vast variety of fields because of the vast context it gives our students (and our faculty!). When we cut programs, we lose some of that context, irrespective of the job market. Our students can’t be as well-rounded if we take a slice out of the circle of knowledge.

Why must we teach?
Society depends on teachers to help intellectually guide the next generation. It’s what we do, and we in postsecondary education should be proud to be intellectuals, which, to our collective disservice, has come to mean “snobs,” or even threats. On the contrary, seeking to know and to share that knowledge allows societies to continue, and even flourish.

Tearing down knowledge as fake news or alternative facts is not helpful. Neither is restricting access to knowledge (read this related article). You, dear teacher-reader, help students interpret knowledge. My colleague, The Transformed Teacher, says this:

“I believe the interpretation piece is critical – and is one of the key roles teachers play, i.e., helping students learn how to interpret knowledge within varied contexts and think flexibly. For example, how does plastic impact our world, and is our current model sustainable? (from the perspective of: plastic bottle recyclingconsumers carrying groceries, computer manufacturers, beach-walkers, a director of recycling programs, physicians maintaining hygiene standards, an inventor cleaning ocean garbage patches, a legislator assessing microplastic, people catching and eating fish, sea creatures entangled in ghost nets, etc.). Life is complicated, and students need to develop skills to deal with that complexity.”

Ideas can be hard. Sound bites are just not good enough. You – a teacher at this place – can take the greatest pride in going beyond the sound bite. It’s what we do – we go beyond the sound bite.

Here’s the bottom line, and this is not hyperbole: We need students to rationally analyze the heck out of the world because we have unexpectedly hit a circular wall that seeks to confine fact-based knowledge and interpretation within it. That wall is closing in as we see the repercussions in recent scientific and social policy. Our students and their students and their students and all the generations of students that we hope will follow must work together to break down the wall. Through our work, they can make it plain that, “We want to know.” That’s why we must teach.


prunesThe Grizzled Teacher (TGT) has taught at eight public universities, one private college, two “flagships”, and several regional state schools during 38 years in postsecondary education. TGT has directed and taught in a 6,000-student first-year science program with a typical class size of 300 students, has taught graduate courses with 5 students, and worked with a thousand faculty, instructional staff, and more than 10,000 students. TGT was on short-term contracts for many years, has been tenured for many more, and has won two-dozen university, state, and national teaching awards. TGT hasn’t seen it all, but has seen a heckuva lot.

After all these years, I still don’t know all the answers, but I’m getting better at knowing the questions.

To quote the late, great Joan Rivers, “Can we talk?”


Submit a pedagogical question or comment to the Office of Teaching and Learning (ndsu.otl@ndsu.edu) for answers in an upcoming blog post.

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