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cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by kDAmo

When I consider how much freedom we truly have as educators, I can’t help but grin!  Prior to last year, when I attended teacher’s college, I was always under the impression that the curriculum was this oppressive, restricting document that governed how and what I would teach.  I was relieved to discover that the door is wide open for teachers to be creative, innovative and relevant on a daily basis!  Recently, I have been sucked into the never-ending stream of articles and blog posts brought to my attention by way of Twitter, and am even more enthused about getting into my own classroom to put to the test some of the excellent strategies and ideas that have been shared.

If I’m completely honest, though, I occasionally wonder if our pre-occupation with the many gadgets, online applications and resources available can lead us down a path toward self-indulgence.  Clearly, a self-indulgent teacher is missing the point…right?  Our raison d’etre after all is our students!  Our job is to place their needs ahead of our own, and do everything in our power to see that each and every one of them is encouraged and motivated to work toward educational goals and achieve personal growth in the process.  It should never be about us!  Consequently, when preparing lessons, I need not be considering my eagerness to try out the latest educational fad or impress students with my knowledge of the latest social network.  Shouldn’t I set aside my own interests/tastes and stop trying to brainstorm ways to ‘shake things up’?  After all, teaching isn’t about keeping anyone entertained–myself or the students!

This weekend I was prompted to consider this dilemma in a different light.

Laura Marling, 21-year old English folk-singer, explained early in her show at Toronto’s Great Hall on Friday evening that “stage banter isn’t really [her] forte”.  For those of us lucky enough to be in attendance, the lilting melodies, rich lyrics and stellar instrumentation were enough, but whether Ms. Marling realized it or not, she made a few comments that stuck with at least one member of her audience.  During a small acoustic set around the middle of her performance, Marling explained that one of the realities of touring is that the band gets very comfortable with the ‘set’ they will play night after night, and the entire business of performing can sometimes become very automatic, and at times, uninspired.  Fortunately, our concert was only ‘4 gigs in’ from the start of the tour, so the performance to which we were treated was anything but robotic!  Still, Marling felt it necessary to toss in an unfinished song–a work in progress–that she called “purely self-indulgent”.  She alluded to the fact that in order to keep things fresh, and keep her from falling prey to the repetitive, lifeless nature of performing the same songs endlessly, she would take a risk and play a song she had a real chance of “f___ing up” (not a curse word in Britain).

Can a comparison be made between an artist who is performing and an educator in a classroom environment?  We’re no strangers to self-indulgent rock stars, but would we teachers truly admit that our behaviour in the classroom is ever borne out of a desire to satisfy our needs or whims?  As I seek to answer this question honestly, I can’t help but reflect on a lesson in which I attempted to tie Sam Harris‘ powerful TED talk, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions”, to a 12th-grade history lesson about ‘de-Christianization’ in revolutionary France and the resulting absence of a standard for morality that in part allowed Robespierre and others to execute their ‘Reign of Terror’.  It was a compelling topic that drew out a wealth of differing viewpoints and lent itself to worthwhile discussion about whether the church or state should have the right to ‘legislate morality’ or whether a post-modern ‘relativistic’ perspective is superior.  It was clear to me (after viewing the talk on my own at least 5-6 times) that Harris’ comments on the subject were applicable and could successfully bring the discussion into the present where we might find some practical application for the material presented.

Unfortunately, a 22-minute video that has numerous times tickled my intellect and appealed to my propensity for logic, fell flat!  I was subjected to a chorus of questions to the tune of “Why are we watching this?” and “What does this have to do with the French Revolution?”  I couldn’t help  but wonder if the video was over their heads, and if deep down I maybe knew this, and if I just wanted an excuse to include it in a lesson.  It clearly hadn’t enhanced student understanding of the concepts covered or been as fruitful as the discussion that preceded it.  If anything, it had obfuscated that which I’d intended to communicate.   Perhaps I’d done this before when I read a lengthy entry from a travel journal I wrote while backpacking Europe in 2003 to a group of grade 11 students studying Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, or forced students to collaborate using a class Wikispace that I had established though some of them clearly would have been more comfortable sharing research and creating the final submission using a different medium.  Don’t these examples bear some similarity to Marling’s ‘trying out’ a new song on a group of paying customers solely that she might improve it and keep from nodding off in mid-performance?

One thing is for sure, the crowd at The Great Hall in Toronto appreciated the proverbial peek under the tent at what may be coming next from this vibrant artist, and though she did make a mistake and restart the song at one point, Marling’s self-described self-indulgence ended up pleasing many.  Likewise, I noticed a few students succumbing to distraction as I reached the end of my journal reading, but several others responded to my sharing about my personal life with meaningful anecdotes from their own.  The Wikispace proved to be an excellent opportunity for students who participate less in class to have a voice, despite the many complaints that students had difficulty accessing the site from home.  Ultimately, these small successes should not excuse the performer or the educator if the behaviour is entirely selfish.

I submit, after much consideration, that Marling completely misdiagnosed the situation when she called it ‘self-indulgence’ and I believe that the examples provided from my own teaching practice fall more within the purview of self-expression.  It was refreshing to see a professional performer make a mistake, and joke about it, and start the song again!  She instantly revealed her humanity and connected with her audience in an even deeper way by exposing her insecurities and demonstrating that her talents are the product of a lot of hard work and practice.  In many ways, teaching is no different!  We bring ideas, passions, interests, and strategies into the classroom that engage and fascinate US, in hopes that our students will make connections or be engaged by our willingness to experiment and innovate.  We risk failing publicly because we want to avoid repetition and escape the temptation to accept ease over excellence!

Last year, I honed my skills as an Intermediate-Senior English teacher with guidance from Dr. Michael Kehler.  What I will always remember about our year together is that Dr. Kehler gave us much more than wisdom, knowledge, and strategy; he allowed his personality, his passions, and his convictions to infuse everything he did or said inside the classroom.  Of course, he maintained boundaries of professionalism while simultaneously offering his friendship, and was careful to delineate between conventional wisdom and his personal viewpoints, but the course could not have been the same under a different instructor because so much of the ‘material’ was brought to life by such a uniquely gifted teacher.  His lessons weren’t always received with the enthusiasm he possessed for the topic/activity, and a few of his ideas/analogies failed to resonate for a significant number of students, but the choice to be himself and teach in a manner consistent with who he is was never one that could be characterized as self-indulgent.

It has been said before, but constant reflection regarding the choices we make, the strategies we use, and the activities and assignments we prepare for students to complete really is the key to ensuring that our motivations and methods are serving the best interests of our students.  Taking risks, employing the tools with which we are most comfortable, and pushing students in new (occasionally uncomfortable) directions is part of doing our job, and we need not be discouraged if their response doesn’t always match our excitement for a lesson or application.   If it feels as though we are bordering on self-indulgence, serious consideration is definitely required; chances are good, however, that for the vast majority of well-meaning teachers, instinct has guided them toward an opportunity for self-expression that will have a positive impact on teacher-student relationships and enhance the learning opportunities for some–if not all–students.

What do you think?  Are these concerns about ‘self-indulgence’ restricted to new teachers like me?  How do you know whether what I’ve called ‘self-expression’ is giving way to self-indulgence?  What do you do (if anything) to ensure that the use of media, tools, and technologies that you find valuable and interesting doesn’t become a showcase for your own personal interests?