Teaching is engagement in a fundamentally interactive process with a learner, in which the teacher takes the role of a guide, to help the learner navigate unfamiliar concepts and information. A successful expedition requires more than a knowledgeable guide, though; it requires interaction between a skilled guide and a dedicated explorer. The guide must be well prepared to lead the party; he or she must have experience with the types of landscapes to be traversed, must plan ahead adequately to ensure the welfare and safety of the travelers, must have the skills to manage unexpected events along the way, and must have compassion and care for the people under his or her charge, many of whom may not be seasoned explorers and may require more aid than the rest to successfully complete the journey. The travelers, too, must participate in the success of the journey. They must be committed to the voyage, must be open to making adjustments to their normal routine in order to accommodate the rigors of travel, must be inclined to work with the guide as members of a team, each carrying their own weight and helping one another, and responding to the necessary hardships of exploration in constructive ways. What distinguishes a less successful guide from the most estimable is often not their own knowledge and preparation, which are expected to be excellent at a minimum, but how they manage the myriad motivations, temperaments, and levels of preparedness among their traveling companions.
Learning, as with any voyage, can be beset with frustrations and setbacks, peppered with splendid vistas and epiphanies, can be in equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. And the learners, as with travelers, arrive at the departure point with a wide range of expectations of their guide, and of the journey itself. Certainly, there are those who prefer to travel alone. There are brilliant and confident minds that navigate new intellectual territory with grace and ease, and require little or no assistance along the way. There are also learners who want to strike off on their own, but enjoy the confidence of having an experienced traveler recommend routes and points of interest. There are those who long to explore, but will only do so with a trusted mentor, who will travel with them to ensure that they see all that they are “supposed to” see with a minimum of missteps. There are hesitant learners, who feel that a journey is expected of them, but who have great trepidations about actually embarking on one, and have difficulty entrusting themselves to a guide who is necessarily a foolhardy traveler herself. And there are those for whom the journey is merely a series of trials en route to a desired destination, who have little interest in the vistas, and expect the guide to get them to the end quickly and with as little diversion and inconvenience as possible. The teacher’s greatest challenge is in managing these diverse expectations, and providing helpful, compassionate guidance for every type of learner.
The teaching-learning process happens every day, among all kinds of people, in all sorts of contexts. It happens in conversation over the breakfast table, in on-the-job training exercises, in seminars and workshops, at meetings, in hallways, in fields, under bleachers and over beers. Any time one person guides another to a new thought or understanding, teaching-learning has happened. The classroom is the most recognized stage for this interaction, and in many ways, it is also the most challenging. There are few other situations in which a teacher engages with the entire range of learner expectations simultaneously, where one teacher is expected to guide 30, 100, or 300 students in unison through a defined body of knowledge, on a pre-set schedule, and without benefit of a unifying motivation for the journey. Some of the students will be brilliant, self-directed intellectual travelers with a passion for learning; others will be unprepared, unmotivated, or even resentful of the effort required. Reaching the broadest possible range of students, and ensuring that each one achieves a successful journey, requires tapping into their individual interests and motivations, and building trust that there is something on this path that will be of use to them. Classroom teaching must be approached with full understanding that others’ motivations differ from your own. Not everyone is inherently interested in the body of knowledge through which you are guiding them. Many students will be in your classroom solely because they are required to complete your course as part of their degree program; they may consider it irrelevant, boring, or onerous, and they may even embark on the journey with steadfast resistance to enjoyment of the scenery. My goal as a teacher, beyond the expected mandates of a successful intellectual guide, is to tap into the diverse interests of my students, in order to bring them into the teaching-learning interaction as willing participants. If my students do nothing more than survive the journey, then I have been a mediocre guide at best. I count my successes by the students who arrive more exhilarated than exhausted, and by those who have found some epiphanies along the way.
Success in teaching, though, is a moving target. As an interactive process, teaching naturally invites continual improvement. There is always something that can be done better, to enrich the process, to make it more enjoyable, to make it more interesting and accessible, to amplify the intellectual gains and minimize frustration. As a teacher, every time that I engage with students through subject matter, I find something that could be made clearer next time, something that I could do differently to better light their way. Every time that I engage with teachers through subject matter, as a student, I discover new pathways for information; some which I strive to recreate, and others which I find wrought with obstacles, and vow to avoid. The roles of traveler and guide are temporary and fluid; we all engage the world around us through both roles, every day. By practice in engagement, and by paying attention to how we engage in each exchange, and how satisfactory the outcomes are, we can improve our efficacy in both roles.
Dr. Brantlee Spakes Richter
University of Florida
Department of Plant Pathology