Most of us, sometime in childhood, were offered this solemn advice from a peace-loving teacher or parent: “If you want to have a friend, be a friend.” The adage has wider application, I’ve found, than we might have suspected when we stood by the swings and considered our social options. One is this: if you want collegiality, be collegial. Share equipment and information and investment in department life. Another is this: if you want to keep learning, keep teaching.
While I don’t fully espouse the pious egalitarianism of those who claim, “I learn more from my students than they learn from me” (because what exactly are we doing at the front of the classroom if that’s the case?), I do think it’s an educator’s responsibility to keep learning. We do, of course, learn from our students. If we invite odd questions and authentic curiosity and news from electronic neighborhoods we don’t tend to visit, we’ll learn things. We also learn from people in picket lines and waiting rooms and airplanes (those not already wearing their headphones), if we’re willing to watch and ask and listen to their stories. And we learn around the dinner table if we let those we think we know surprise us.
As my life gets longer, the notion of “lifelong learning” becomes richer and more meaningful and, these days, more urgent. We have a lot to learn for our students’ sake, for the children, including our own, who are inheriting a range of problems with unprecedented complexity. We even have a lot to learn about the fields in which we have some expertise; we can always fine-tune, expand, deepen, and rearrange our knowledge as new information comes in and new contexts require revision and rereading. It takes humility and courage to keep learning. We need to do so if only to stay aware of what we’re asking of students when we lure them out to their learning edge—that they reconsider what they thought they were sure of, that they challenge authorities they have been taught to respect, that they can afford to risk mistakes, that real learning is not a competition but an invitation to exhilarating conversation.
Still Learning about Learning
At its best, what educational institutions call “professional development” is an honest effort to foster the kind of learning I just described, and to foster the climate of reciprocity and mutual appreciation in which it flourishes. Professional development is a recognized criterion of evaluation for promotion at most institutions: we are expected to attend the occasional in-house workshop on learning styles or working with students with disabilities or diversity training or how to make the best use of electronic classrooms. We occasionally hear invited experts in the field report on new research. We sign up for webinars and, when we can, attend national conferences. Though some of these can seem pro forma, redundant, or a waste of time we might prefer to spend actually reading or doing our own research, few of us question the need for ongoing learning as part of professional life.
In my experience, much ongoing learning comes in preparing and presenting talks. I’ve had the exhilarating experience of hearing Mary Oliver and Billy Collins read from their own works; I’ve also taken great pleasure in speaking about those works to audiences who don’t normally read poetry. The former experiences were delightful and memorable; the latter allowed me to discover new ways of reading familiar material, new approaches to interdisciplinary conversation, and new answers to a question that arises frequently and deserves a rich and full answer: Why read a poem at a time like this?
In my efforts to answer questions like that, usually posed by people who live and move in other disciplinary territories, I have frequently recalled Peter’s challenge to believers to always be ready to give an account of the hope they live by. It is a valuable challenge for teachers as we consider the missional dimension of our vocation. The “why” question is not an idle one. It tends to arise more frequently for those who teach material with less obvious application than, say, computer skills for techno-teens or biology for budding scientists. Why should we read Milton or Melville or Eliot, or why should we concern ourselves with the particulars of wars fought and treaties forged centuries ago are questions that arise honestly, if sometimes impatiently, and it is our job to keep widening students’ and one another’s shared understanding of the value of what we’re doing. We always need to be ready with examples of “the best that has been thought and said” that lead us back to the core questions: Why are we here? How do things happen? How do they change? Who gets to decide? interpret? control information? How is power acquired and transferred? What does love have to do with it all?
Berry, Wendell. “The Wild Geese,” in Selected Poems of Wendell Berry. Counterpoint, 1998.
Eliot, T. S. “Little Gidding.” http://www .columbia.edu/itc/history/winter /w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html.
Marilyn McEntyre’s teaching career has included Westmont College, Mills College, The College of New Jersey, and UC Berkeley. Her books include Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Word by Word, and Make a List: How a Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts.