My 9 Rules of Thumb for Teaching
by Dr. Eric Dodson

Iíve been thinking that it might be a good idea to share with my students (and colleagues) some of the usually implicit values that lend direction to my work. My hope in this essay is to give you a sort of inside-glimpse into what at least one professor thinks, feels and tries to live-out in his time together with you. Basically, Iím going to try to share with you at least one small, personal part of what it means to me to join with you in a common quest for the pulse of True University. Over time, Iíve come to perceive the work of teaching in terms of some basic rules of thumb, most of which Iíve learned through my experiences in the classroom. These rules of thumb attempt to express both the reality of the teaching-situation as Iím experiencing it, as well as some of my ideals (which I havenít yet attained). As the phrase ďrules of thumbĒ hopefully suggests, all of these observations are not final formulations In fact, Iím always questioning and revising them -- and sometimes my experience even tells me to compose new ones altogether. Still, I think that these rules of thumb pretty much convey where I am now in my ongoing attempt to grow into teachingís deep craft. And so, without further ado, here are some of my own evolving rules of thumb for genuine teaching:

1. A genuine teacher remains a student at heart.

Comment: I find that this rule of thumb is true in several ways. First, for a teacher to remain a student at heart, he or she must embody a studentís ongoing readiness to question, experiment and learn. Obviously it behooves a teacher to keep learning about his or her specific area of expertise. However, I find that a more rare and more powerful kind of learning occurs when a teacher is open enough to learn directly from his or her students. For instance, I find that when Iím open enough, my students teach me volumes about the craft and art of teaching -- and even about its deep foundation, life itself. However, I also find that being a professor makes it very easy to be closed to this kind of learning. Over time, Iíve detected a real temptation to fall prey to the egoism of having more status, power, experience and knowledge than students do -- and hence to start acting like students have little of actual value to offer. Consequently, I find that itís important for me to take the time to recognize and affirm that despite my university degrees and position, I too am basically still a student of life -- and that having a Ph. D. doesnít make me radically different from my students. Sure, my task is different from my studentsí task; and sure, Iíve read more books than my students have. But the more basic reality is that all of us are struggling to make sense out of the human riddle in which we find ourselves, and to enter into life more fully, more powerfully and more poetically. In that fundamental way, weíre really more alike than we are different. I find that itís important to cultivate an openness to this aspect of basic reality because doing so helps break down some of the egoism, disconnection and boredom typical of too many college classrooms. At the same time, I find that professors who somehow manage to remain students at heart also tend to be less likely to slip into a dogmatic or self-satisfied complacency (an ugly phenomenon familiar to most every student).

2. A genuine teacher always seeks to grow more deeply into teachingís craft -- both intellectually and personally.

Comment: I find that most genuine teachers remain at some level discontent, hungry and restless -- vaguely aware that there is always a beyond to teachingís core riddle. Consequently, most genuine teachers seek to grow into teachingís art more fully -- both intellectually and personally. Hence, being a genuine teacher is not really an end-state, but an ever-evolving process of intensifying oneís involvement and growth in the work. I also find that one of the somewhat paradoxical aspects of genuine teaching is that a genuine teacher is ready to transcend even the project of genuine teaching. In other words, a genuine teacher embodies a paradoxical stance of feeling on one hand a deep commitment to pursuing the art of teaching in its most powerful forms, and on the other a readiness to question and radically re-define his or her entire project of genuine teaching. Consequently, most genuine teachers embody something of a questioning, experimental attitude toward their work -- and a certain willingness to dare whatís uncertain and unsettled in their pursuit (rather than fixating on staying with whatís safe and familiar). I also find that a genuine teacher usually has a great respect for the immense subtlety and difficulty of genuine teaching. Genuine teaching demands a commitment of oneís whole person -- oneís thoughts, oneís feelings, oneís values, oneís history, oneís personal strengths and weaknesses, oneís physical body -- all of these are integral and inescapable dimensions of genuine teaching. Furthermore, genuine teaching tends to be a genuine teacherís first and primary endeavor in life -- precisely as a function of its subtle and demanding nature. Of course, itís still possible to be a good teacher without this level of commitment -- but not a great teacher. Every great teacher Iíve known has been fully and completely in love with teaching -- not so much like ďlovingĒ a pizza or a pair of shoes -- more like being in love with expressing oneís fullest and best destiny in life. And while itís an easy and politically-correct thing to want to attach the phrase ďgenuine teacherĒ to anyone standing in front of a classroom, the fact remains that teachers of this caliber are pretty few and far-between.

3. A genuine teacherís thinking is both incisive and passionate -- qualities that are obvious and contagious.

Comment: My own perception is that one of most common and most injurious myths about teaching is that it simply requires possessing expertise in some area. If that were true, then practically everyone with a doctorate would also be a great teacher. Beyond possessing expertise, one must also care deeply about what one knows -- deeply enough to be passionate about it. And the politically-incorrect reality here is that we donít all care equally. But even expertise and passion arenít really enough. Oneís expertise and oneís passion must be more or less evident to people, rather than remaining mostly internal to oneself. However, probably the rarest and most mysterious factor of all is that a genuine teacher must possess a particular quality of infectiousness. A genuine teacher is, at base, a bringer of a peculiar kind of contagion -- a contagious enthusiasm for questioning, thinking, doubting, discovering, believing, feeling, experiencing -- in short an infectious enthusiasm for life itself.

4. In his or her scholarship, a genuine teacher seeks to express truths that actually matter, and to articulate them in truly powerful ways.

Comment: This rule of thumb sounds almost too obvious. Yet doesnít so much scholarship seem more bent on revealing inconsequential truths, rather than truths that really touch us deeply and powerfully? Basically this rule of thumb attempts to invert the prevailing academic standard, and to place a higher priority on scholarshipís quality than on its quantity.

5. An okay teacher aims at shaping his or her studentsí immediate future. A good teacher teaches aims at shaping his or her studentsí entire lives. A great teacher aims at shaping life for all time.

Comment: Iíve found through my experiences (both as a student and as a teacher) that a genuine teacherís work is not only local in scope. A genuine teacher also actively senses his or her workís proper and necessary place within the vast turning of the stars. To borrow a phrase from Thich Nyat Hahn, a moment of genuine teaching resounds even in distant galaxies. By the way, a corollary to this rule of thumb is that a rotten teacher aims mostly at increasing his or her pay, heightening his or her status, and/or getting to the next vacation.

6. A genuine teacher is usually in touch with the pulse of the sacred in the classroom.

Comment: I find that genuine teachers recognize not only that their work involves fostering thinking and conveying knowledge, but also that these aims gain their ultimate importance only insofar as they touch upon what is genuinely sacrosanct. Therefore, for a genuine teacher every fact, every turn of phrase, and even every studentís glance has the potential to open upon a sudden and irresistible sacredness -- a powerful experience of fathoming and revering our world. A genuine teacher realizes that conveying knowledge is important, but that the real point is to begin to sound the secret language of life.

7. One way of identifying genuine teachers is to listen closely to how they speak about their work.

Comment: Of course, the best way to identify genuine teachers is to be immediately present to their actual teaching (and this isnít the same as hearing second-hand reports). Still, Iíve found that most genuine teachers tend to describe their teaching in similar ways -- usually with an air of deep reverence for the work, but also an expectation of immense challenge, as well as immense adventure and enduring satisfaction.

8. A genuine teacherís primary reward lies in the work itself.

Comment: Rewards such as money and status are of course not unimportant to genuine teachers. Genuine teachers love mundane pleasures, too. But genuine teachers know how to keep mundane enticements in perspective, and recognize that the real value of their work rests (or fails to rest) in the actual work itself. The river, the dance, an anonymous pair of eyes now suddenly brilliant -- these are a genuine teacherís real rewards.

Those are my current working rules of thumb. Well, actually thereís one more -- a rule of thumb that I formulated during my very first semester as a teaching assistant. Here it is:

9. In each and every class, at least one person will have fun (that person being myself), and at least one person will learn something (that person also being myself).

Over time, Iíve come to believe even more strongly in this rule of thumb. In short, my experience tells me that when I donít enjoy my role, my students usually donít enjoy their role either. And without my own willingness to learn from them, my students learn precious little about life from me. Of course, my own positive attitude is no guarantee that anything positive will happen for my students. Regardless of my attitude, there are always those students who are simply determined to find their way into the academic grave as quickly as possible -- and Iíve learned that thereís usually nothing in the world I can do to stop them. But on the whole, it seems that my own positive attitude helps increase the likelihood that my students will have experiences of actual profound, meaningful learning. Anyhow, Iím really not an advocate of the purely altruistic motive in teaching (to me this is a simple point of honesty). Over time, Iíve come to recognize that I too need to experience profound and amazing things in the classroom to make it worthwhile. So, Iíve grown less shy about relying on my own sense for whatís exciting, what matters, whatís important, etc. Well, any responses?

Many thanks to Carl Rogers for inspiration.

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