Teaching yourself

As with Diane’s latest, this is my last post before Joanne comes back. This isn’t about any story in particular — it’s just some thoughts that I’ve got on teaching. Yep — it’s shameless preaching time. So gather ’round and let me tell y’all what I think. The title of this post is “Teaching yourself”. Teaching, of course, takes two objects: one teaches something to someone. When I say “teaching yourself” I mean teaching yourself to someone else. But what does that mean?

Well, let’s start with admitting that I’m talking about at least two separate, but related things: let’s call them style and substance. Every teacher has a style of their own — whether or not it has been developed or not. Every teacher also has knowledge and experience — substance — which I think can be usefully contrasted with “content”. “Content” in modern parlance is the stuff that’s in books and curricular guides, the stuff that everyone thinks should be taught to students. When I say “substance”, I’m talking about what’s in the teacher’s head, and more specifically, about how it’s situated in there and how it’s expressed in the teacher’s own way of doing things.

Let’s talk about style first. Diane recently advised teachers to avoid ickiness. She put it really well, so I’ll use her words:

Teachers often get told what to do and how to do it, but intelligent administrators realize that they won’t (and shouldn’t) follow directives to the letter. When deciding what to follow, what to adapt, and what to ignore, a teacher can safely put icky things in the last two piles. One can take an icky thing and make it less icky, or one can avoid it altogether. No teacher should have to descend into anything tacky or dumb. (Of course, what’s icky for one teacher may not be so for another.)

Following your “gut”, as Diane puts it, is really good advice. It’s good to break tablets, to explore — but the reason for doing that is to discover and refine your own style of teaching. (It helps if you’ve learned from people who know what they’re doing themselves.) If your teaching style isn’t amenable to lots of group work, don’t assign a lot of group work. You’ll quickly find out whether it fits your style by trying it out. The same goes for lectures: some teachers just suck at lecturing. Others are brilliant. Do what you need to do. My own personal style is highly Socratic; that’s how I was taught, and that’s what I have a natural affinity for.

But being true to your own style isn’t just about making yourself comfortable. It’s also about your students. Teaching takes place in the context of interpersonal relationships between teachers and students. Some of these relationships might be frightfully superficial given the context of institutional education, but that’s not nearly as large a problem as inauthenticity. Students can tell when you’re faking it, and if the students don’t trust you to be who you are, they won’t want to listen to anything that you have to say. Mutual respect is impossible if one party or the other is trying to be someone they really aren’t.

But style is just the “how”. More important is the “what” that is taught, the substance. And it’s here that I think people have, from time to time, gone a bit off the reservation in how they think about teaching. There is an insidious view that lurks about these days that holds teaching to be a substantive skill of its own, and the content to be something like a program run on the “good teaching OS”. Get a good teacher, give the teacher a curricular guide, and we’re off to the races.

This view is, I think, nonsense. (Sometimes I feel like it’s on its way out, which is a relief. But then we get things like “Common Core” and I’m nervous again.)

I think it’s the job of the teacher, to some extent or another, to make the student more like the teacher. Now, that sounds incredibly narcissistic, and given who is writing this, I want to explain what I mean. There are obviously limits to this: if I’m hired as an English teacher, I’m not going to make my students more like me in terms of my sense of humor or my knowledge and skill at fencing. My job as an English teacher isn’t to pass on some sterile set of alienated skills, but rather to make my students more like me in terms of my ability to read, interpret, and express myself in written form.

But skills don’t exist in a vacuum: they exist in the context of personal style. There’s no Platonic “writing skill” out there in the ether. There’s Michael Lopez’s writing skill; there’s Diane Senechal’s writing skill; there’s Joanne Jacobs’ writing skill; there’s Cal’s and Crimson Wife’s and Engineer Poet’s and Richard Aubrey’s writing skills. Do these all have certain characteristics in common? Sure. There are general rules of writing and style — but these rules are meaningless on their own. They need to be demonstrated within a specific context, and if the teacher isn’t using (one of) his or her own context(s), then the teaching isn’t going to be as good. I can’t show students how to generically “pick the best word” for what they mean. I can only show them how I go about thinking about it.

Once they master Mike Lopez style, and maybe several other styles… then the student will start to develop their own style. Maybe. That’s the highest level of learning, and it’s something into which that we as educators have surprisingly little input outside of establishing the foundational skills.

Anyway, the trick to good education (or one of them, anyway) is getting teachers who are the sorts of people — in relevant respects — that you want your students to be. We don’t need “highly qualified” teachers, we just need teachers we can look at and say, “Yeah, I want my child to be more like that.”

Teachers always talk — and rightfully so — about giving so much of themselves to their work, about putting themselves into their work body and soul. That’s good talk. Because that’s exactly what should be going on. And the reason it should be what’s going on is that the only thing, at the end of the day, that a teacher has to teach is themselves.

So teach yourself. And if you’re worth anything at all, you’ll get good results.

Many thanks to Joanne, Diane, and all of the commenters here at everyone’s favourite edu-blog.


  1. Excellent post. Generally agree. Like how you set out substance, style, content.

    Question: To what extent does this apply to non-English teachers? That is, “Writing style” is something that exists in popular discourse, and nobody would disagree that your style and JJ’s style are distinct.

    Most other teachers, however, don’t teach something usually associated with a personal style. “Math style,” “Science style,” “History style,” and so forth….

    Would you say that it’s equally true for non-English teachers, that they’re trying to get students to emulate their style, and then ultimately developing their own style?

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Absolutely! This is especially pronounced in mathematics, I think, where there are like, fifty ways to solve any given problem. It’s somewhat less so in History — though I know my way of thinking about and analysing history is methodologically different than some of my Philosophy colleagues so i can imagine how that would play out in the context of teaching history. And I would guess that the stylistic variations are probably the least in the natural sciences.

      Still, just for example’s sake, let me compare my Chemistry and Physics classes in high school with my biology class. My bio class was textbook-driven, with prepared labs. There was just about no sense in which the teacher was an actual, live presence. I hated that class.

      Chemistry, by contrast, was very clearly a trip into Connie McDonnell’s fun fun fun world of Chemistry, with experiments that she found fun, and her teaching us things that were slightly different, here and there, than what was in the textbook. It’s not that her way was entirely different, mind you, but it was hers, and that meant she could teach it. (Even if she couldn’t keep a certain group of boys from locking her out of the classroom.)

      My Physics teacher likewise taught things his way. He liked to teach vectors, for instance, in the context of nautical navigation — he was Navy. He taught what he knew, how he knew it.

  2. I pirated my writing skill off some CBBS back in the pre-web days, and sometimes wonder if I got my money’s worth.