The Hardest of Teaching: Knowing When To…Not

Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky, “At School Doors”

College-level education is as filled with pedagogical discussions as any faculty office of any level. It is a major concern. And yet I think, beneath the jargon and the method, we need to remember something very important: knowing when to do nothing at all.

Often we think of what to do. Of what needs to be known. To be read. To be argued. To be imparted. And of course, there is no time for all of it.

And of course, they cannot read.

And they cannot write.

So many needs that cannot possibly be met by a single individual in a single semester. I don’t care how many learning objectives, readings, group activities, and assignments you map for me: it is not enough. It will never be enough. Nor will it make education come to be. There is too much at hand, even when all of the steps are followed perfectly.

I think the key to really excellent teaching isn’t so much in successfully reaching a goal as it is in patiently welcoming failure after failure. In grinning at a mess. In knowing, with humility and humor, that they will forget most of it. That it is not possible to give enough background. That they will turn complexity into simplicity. That I will misjudge the hour, the words, the moment. And still to know that this, too, is learning.

I cannot count the wrong-headed things I myself have thought and un-thought, given enough time. Cannot remember most of the lessons I received at any point in my life, though they spin together in the synapses of my mind. All the things I apprehended and misapprehended all at once: they rest there as a sort of living history. “Scaffolding” is an idea the educational psychologist Erik Erikson taught: the teacher needs to build in steps, and then pull the scaffolding away to allow the student to think. Well, time is also a scaffolding. Time is the necessary condition of all learning. Patience is the necessary generosity of an education.

It is important to know when to correct, and when to not. It is fundamental to know to when to step in, and when to permit a struggle. Every teacher must know when to speak and when to remain silent. When a question is better than an answer. And, sometimes, when nothing at all is sufficient – except time, and patience for time.

All of us exist in a sort of poverty. Empty-handed and hungry. If the teacher gives to the hungry student, then it is out of a shared poverty. Out of a disposition that teaches the student patience for the unknown, and impatience for more. The teacher, more than anything, must embody such a disposition. It cannot be taught. Only offered continually, patiently, gently. From one poor beggar to another.

Learning is lifelong. This is why, before and after everything, it has to be lived. Not merely taught.


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