At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pat Conroy and Teaching Greatness

As you probably can tell from the title of this post, one of my all-time favorite authors is Pat Conroy. I don't know of any other writers who can fill me simultaneously with joy and angst chapter after chapter. Not to mention, I'm a sucker for the Southern gothic, and you don't need to convince me it's a good idea to spend some more time vicariously in South Carolina.

Conroy himself began his post-collegiate life (he was a 1967 graduate of the Citadel) as a teacher, instructing young people on Daufuskie Island, South Carolina. His experiences there formed the basis for his memoir, The Water is Wide, filled with insights on how he was stretched as a teacher, battled with the principal, and worked hard to communicate with the islanders (many of whom were slave descendants) in a poverty-stricken environment. It's a fascinating tale about the art and struggle of teaching. And yet when I think of teaching and Pat Conroy, my thoughts are drawn to a different book.

It's almost a passing thought in The Lords of Discipline (still my all-time favorite Conroy work) that Will McLean, the story's protagonist, shares thusly on his way to British history class one day. He says

“I developed the Great Teacher theory late in my freshman year. It was a cornerstone of the theory that great teachers had great personalities and that the greatest teachers had outrageous personalities. I did not like decorum or rectitude in a classroom; I preferred a highly oxygenated atmosphere, a climate of intemperance, rhetoric, and feverish melodrama. And I wanted my teachers to make me smart."

One of the most striking things about that passage is what it is lacking. There is no mention of carefully crafted lesson plans, deep knowledge in one's subject matter, a full set of classroom management skills, and the like. There's not so much an emphasis on what a teacher does but I see a whale of a lot of weight on what type of person a teacher is.

This is not to say teachers shouldn't be well-trained. I believe firmly in the logical reality that whatever is in the result must have been in the cause. But we can also over-train to the extent that if we just have more professional development, attend this seminar, be licensed in this area...yada, yada, yada--well, then we will be effective teachers. Now you can improve as a teacher, but I've really come to believe that teaching is a gift that you either have or you don't. For a lot of people, no matter how much time you invest in them, they shouldn't be anywhere near a classroom. And for others, you realize that teaching fits them like a hand in a glove and the experience is intoxicating in the best sense of the word.

Knowledge, organizational skills, "collaborative learning community", and curricular vision aside, the number one thing I believe a teacher can bring to their classroom is a passionate personality. Students are looking for that "highly oxygenated atmosphere." They are seeking an arena in which they can capture greatness, and if we love what we do, then they'll smell the hunt.

In referencing my earlier post on sacred cows and edgy questions, students are also looking for a safe environment to ask rugged questions, to get out of the box, and to challenge traditional thinking. Are teachers the type who absorb the edginess and authentically leads people to discover the truth for themselves? Or do they lash out when their students "threaten" them by disagreement or finding a different interpretation to a reading?

Students are looking for honesty and authenticity. Are teachers being real and genuine? Are they teaching truth and living it out? Young people may not have cornered the market on knowing wrong from right conclusively, but they can smell hypocrisy and disdain a mile away.

And students want teachers and mentors who will shepherd them through the rough spots of life, who understand that school is preparation for life but is not the whole of life. Teachers, your class may be important, but it is one of several (at least in middle and high school), not the only one. What you demand from and how you evaluate your kids should reflect that.

You're free to disagree with me (just to emphasize this blog is also a safe place, too), but I think it's true: Who you are as a teacher speaks more loudly and effectively than what you've done. I'm not even sure if there is such a thing as great teaching. But I do know there are great individuals in my life who have taught me well. And that counts for a heck of a lot.

Passion. Safety. Truth. Authenticity. Care.

Or as my first headmaster, Mickey Bowdon, once said, kids are asking three questions: "Do you love what you do? Do you love me? And can I trust you?"

Pretty simple, really. That is greatness.


Mike Tant said...

I'm right with you regarding Pat Conroy. I think my favorite is "Beach Music" and I intend to read it again when we are at Isle of Palms in May. BTW - a friend found a copy of "Conrack" (the first movie from "The Water is Wide") and made me a DVD copy. This one stars Jon Voight with Paul Winfield and Hume Croyn.

Luke H. Davis said...

Voight did a great job in "Conrack". I'd like to see what they'd do with something as wide in scope as "South of Broad".