Your Most Important Teaching Tool

“The classroom is like my garden. There is nothing that is ever ugly in it. If it is capable of blooming, it stays.” — Louis Schmier, “My Most Important Teaching Tool”, Peer Review

The quote above comes from Schmier’s reflective essay in the Spring 2009 issue of the AACU’s journal, Peer Review. (I blush to brag that I just learned my analysis of Rate My Professor from this blog was also cited by the editor elsewhere in this issue). In his opening anecdote, Schmier describes how he was once asked the question by her mentor, “What is your most important pedagogical tool?” and it later struck him that it was ultimately herself and “the power of [his] intentions.”

This may seem quite obvious. But the key word here is “intention.” It takes reflexive practice to really know what your own intentions are as a teacher. Our job title is a verb that sometimes becomes a tautology (“As a teacher I intend to teach”) that focuses on the content of the teaching, rather than the actual process of how we teach and what it means to teach.

This is why, perhaps, crafting and annually revising a “philosophy of teaching” statement could be a valuable “tool” for your teaching toolbox.
Schmier’s essay essentially concludes with such a philosophy. I really liked his iteration of seven elements that compose his “vision statement.” These are overtly optimistic and necessarily general, leading with the metaphor above: that “the classroom is like my garden.” It’s a good metaphor, though it ostensibly includes nurturing rather than weeding. The teacher feeds and cultivates, but lets learning take its own natural course.

In doing so, there must be room for aberrant growth and unpredictable weather. In another element of his vision statement, he writes: “The classroom is a shop of ‘serious novelties’…we must never get into a predictable, old-hat, stagnating, repetitive, and mind-numbing routine. New ways of looking at, thinking about, and using both the material and ourselves must be the rule of each day.” I share this vision. Constructing moments of ‘serious novelty’ is the only way to prime the pump of intellectual curiosity — which is a pro forma requirement for autonomous learning.

— postscript: thanks for the corrections Charles B.!

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Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.