The stories we tell

5th September 2014 at 01:00

Serious teachers - by which I mean the ones we remember, who opened our eyes, maybe even our hearts, to ideas and perspectives and choices we might never have known without them - put much of themselves into their work.

This is important. College students come to class wanting to learn not from an automaton but from a human being, frailties and all.

But how much should we disclose of ourselves, our discomforts and vulnerabilities? How much should we keep as our own? I can't answer this for anyone else, but I can say that on many days I have embraced what the novelist Saul Bellow said to a class of young writers at Dartmouth: "When I sit at the typewriter, I open my heart. I try to leave nothing covered, suppressed, out of bounds. I give everything I have to that moment."

My goal is to do the same in the classroom, making every period a continual confession of my incurable passion for the subjects I teach.

When I was in junior high school, for example, I became convinced that I had a terminal illness. The story of my growing fear, its resolution (I had imagined the symptoms), and what I learned about myself and my relationship to my parents has proved to be, for me, a powerful way to introduce a poem or a novel or a play that has at its centre the subject of mortality.

Of course, the decision to share a personal story is very much related to the style and temperament of the teacher, as well as the tone and maturity level of the class. It requires a certain lack of guardedness, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of oneself.

During my first year of teaching, I was reasonably confident with the material but not at all confident with myself as a teacher, and so I rarely referenced myself in discussions. In fact, I consciously kept my personal experiences apart from the material we were studying and the insights we were sharing.

It took many years before I understood how the telling of illustrative stories from my own background could help students by showing my human side, as well as reminding them of or awakening them to their own vulnerabilities.

But relating personal stories must bring attention to the subject, must make possible some insight that goes beyond mere biography. If our stories feel egocentric to the students, then everything we do in class comes under suspicion.

Sincerity and humility are far better teachers than heroics. Teachers who paint only rosy portraits of their own cleverness create a facade of superiority that is a barrier to learning; a pretence of omniscience discourages confidence, questioning and growth in students. Why should they bother to think for themselves if the tin god at the front already has all the answers?

We must not teach as wise, mature, finished people whose vast store of knowledge means they no longer have a need to question, but rather as people who are still actively enquiring about themselves and about the world, as beings still involved in trying to change, find things out, and do a bit better as humans in community with others.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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