Teaching Reflection

Teaching Portfolio Contents

Reflection: Teaching As Gift-Giving

You do need to prepare, study, and learn your content. You need to practice and rehearse what you might say or do. But the best gift you can bring to your classroom is not one that comes from intricate content knowledge or a polished presentation style; rather, it is one that comes with who you are and how you give yourself to this world—a heart gift. It is this that will change things, fundamentally. – Deanna Dannels, Eight Essential Questions Teachers Ask, p. 425-426

When I first read this passage, the idea of teaching as gift-giving piqued my interest. I recalled several gifts I received from teachers in the past. My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Osborne, gave me the gift of a yellow sticky note at the end of the year which I still remember. Written in blue ink was an acrostic poem with my name: T – A – R – A – C. Next to the “T” she wrote talented. The “C” stood for “cool chic.”  A professor in college emptied his bookshelf by bringing a box full of great books to class and inviting students to take a book. Many gifts I’ve received in the classroom have been intangible.

Gifts I've given: hand-written notes

Gifts I’ve given: hand-written notes

I, too, enjoy gift-giving, making small gestures, and creating meaningful experiences for those I care about. Whether it is planning a surprise birthday party, sending a hand-written note card with a drawing or quote, or arranging a gift basket, I’ve done it. I enjoy creating celebratory gifts not only at birthdays and holidays, but also creating meaningful gestures at special and challenging times. Gift-giving comes naturally to me when interacting with loved ones, colleagues, and fellow students.

In fact, when asked by my fellow classmates what gifts I bring as a teacher, many of them responded that my gifts are care and thoughtfulness. This helped me see that there is a connection between this part of my personality and my teaching. Ironically, however, when I think of my relationships with students in the course for which I’m a teaching assistant, I’m not sure they have seen that side of me. This is in part because of the size of the course, and the lack of opportunity for interpersonal interaction in the lecture hall.

Upon reflection, I realize that another part of it is because revealing that side of me in the classroom reflects vulnerability. Teachers who practice gift-giving must navigate the tension between authority and vulnerability of sincere gift-giving. When considering sometimes sticky factors such as relational dynamics in the classroom, it is easier and simpler for me to maintain a formal “wall” between myself and students that I feel reinforces my authority. This is my default.

Gifts I've given: Custom branded mug gift for a client

Gifts I’ve given: Custom branded mug gift for a client

The question that I am now exploring is how teachers can practice sincere gift-giving while maintaining authority. What does gift-giving in the classroom mean? This sort of gift-giving is different from giving to a friend to build friendship, but rather aims to build the teacher-student relationship to further student development. Gifts that emphasize the teacher role as mentor are appropriate. These gifts can be meant to encourage, to inspire, and to bolster students. By aligning the idea gift-giving in the classroom with student development and learning, myself and other teachers may take confidence in sharing this practice.

I think it’s important to also recognize that teachers also receive gifts. As in the Constructivist tradition, I feel that learning in the classroom is a two-way exchange. Some of my best teachers have shared with me that they learn much from their students. I am open also to the gifts students bring to the classroom!

Gifts I've Given: Creating a colorful and inviting space

Gifts I’ve Given: Creating a colorful and inviting space

Narrative: When Teaching Works

The setting usually looked like this: twenty or so of us students seated in straight black music performance chairs arranged in the shape of a half moon in the wide open floor of the music hall performance room. Fluorescent lights glow many feet above our heads. Our professors, Dr. K and Dr. S, are camped out casually in chairs opposite us students. It is the senior capstone course for the Arts Studies majors: philosophy of arts.

I wasn’t expecting anything special from the course. But as the semester progressed, we explored both questions that mattered to me a great deal and questions for which I couldn’t yet understand if they should matter. Primarily, we asked, why do artist create art? What is the value of art? What does it mean to create authentic art? Though I had taken a number of fascinating courses, such as Irish Film and Literature, History of American Art, Color and Light, and Creative Nonfiction Writing, I had never before so looked forward to attending a class.

As it turns out, us privileged students were part of a onetime experiment: a joint teaching experience by two musically accomplished veterans and friends. I remember Dr. S spelling out the meaning of epistemology (and then spelling the word). These moments blew my mind wide open: when I began to grasp at the depth and breadth out there of ways to structure ideas and understanding.

We frequently received assignment instructions like, “Write a list of five – better yet, five lists of five. Just look around you. You’ll see so many things arranged in lists of five. You won’t believe how many things are arranged in fives.” This particular assignment translated to a lesson about finding order in the universe’s chaos, if I remember correctly. The main course text was Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dr. K led us through this challenging book, several passages of which I furiously underlined, goading us through the tedious midsection, telling us, “keep going, it will all be worth it.” One day, Dr. K bought in his cello and treated us to a performance of one of Dr. S’s compositions, demonstrating for us their own artistry.

One class session, Dr. S brought in a box of old books to share with the students. At the end of class, he invited students to pick one to take home. I picked up a copy of Tao Te Ching that still sits on my bookshelf four years later. Every once in awhile I pick it up and open to a page to find a nugget like: “All streams flow to the sea/because it is lower than they are/Humility gives it power.” I remember that day in class fighting a greedy urge to take several books.

Though more practical questions such as how to pay the rent awaited me after graduation, these heady questions about art and meaning were precisely what mattered to me at the time as I contemplated how I would live authentically in the so-called real world and what my career in nonprofit arts administration would look like.

The guy that sat next to me was a guitarist with his own band. He’d read Jack Keroac’s On the Road. He’d been a military brat as a child. When I asked him outside of class what he thought of the class, he said, “what, the ramblings of those pious windbags?” I was speechless! Though I hungrily lapped up every word from the class, he felt differently than I did about the class. Though this class, for me, was the ultimate realization of “when teaching works,” maybe other students felt differently.

I could see that the sometimes ad-hoc nature of class assignments, or papers assigned via verbal prompts in class without a written requirements may have been disengaging for some students, particularly those who were less interested in the topic of philosophy of arts. This reminds me of a teacher’s mandate to do his/her best to incorporate opportunities for students of differing learning styles and backgrounds to participate in and thrive in a course. I think that teachers who are present to this demand, and who are invested to the degree that they perform music for the class, and share books with the class – they are doing at least something right.

This class, co-taught by musician-philosophers, was a unique learning experience. It was also the beginning of my relationship with Dr. S and Dr. K, both of whom became mentors of mine. I still keep in touch with them, though art plays a different role in m life now than it did four years ago. These two teachers fulfilled two important roles: facilitator of new thinking and investment as mentor. To this day, it’s hard to articulate exactly what I learned in that class. I was introduced to many writers, philosophers, artists, and performers’ work that I would draw upon again. I began thinking about art at a higher, more critical level. I gained insight about the process of creating art. Mostly, I remember the feeling of rushing to class to discover something new. Ultimately, this special class held in a music hall inspired in me a new level of appreciation for learning and a new passion for understanding structures of thought.