Donnelly, J. F. (1999) Schooling Heidegger: on being in teaching. Teaching and Teacher Education. 15, pp933-949
I am feeling exceptionally blessed at the moment. The last piece of RRW2 reading I wrote about – the Ian Munday paper on problems and mysteries – genuinely transformed my perspective not just on my teaching but also on life in general. The notion of teaching practice as a mystery to be explored – rather than a problem to be solved – really spoke to me. Actually, it did more than speak to me. Rather, it pinned me down, squirted whipped cream in my face and pushed me down a water slide into an enormous bowl of strawberry jelly.
I’ve led the current unit I’m teaching – the Teaching Development Project unit – for three years. The whole premise of it has been – up until now – for participants to identify a ‘problem’ in their teaching practice/context, and design, execute and evaluate an intervention that addresses that ‘problem’ – i.e. a small-scale action research project. The ideas I’ve been engaging with throughout the Researching the Real World (RRW) units on the EdD have prompted me to make significant shifts in the activities and assignment briefs for the TDP unit within the confines of the unit learning outcomes (which are fixed for this year). RRW1 inspired me to implement a change in focus from identifying problems and designing and rationalising interventions, to exploration and evaluation of teaching practice and learning contexts. This resolve to introduce approaches beyond problem-solving has been reinforced by the RRW2 readings.
Since starting RRW2, however, a more profound change has become apparent. I have felt inspired to change not only the way I encourage and direct my students to look at their practice, but also my own perspective on teaching practice. I know it might seem pretty implausible that reading two or three papers has made me a much more caring, outgoing, responsive and happier teacher, but that’s what I feel has happened. I feel the evidence in the warmth in my heart when I’m in the classroom, the lack of nerves, the absence of stress, the sense of joy, the welling-up as I sit here and type and recall how wonderful I’ve felt all week. I see and hear the evidence in the smiles on my students’ faces and the easy laughter, and in the lack of desperate e-mails in my inbox – which means they haven’t gone away from the session feeling confused, angry or stressed.
The Donnelly paper – which applies the ideas of Martin Heidegger to the context of teaching – has added yet more depth to my developing perspective on teaching. One of the key points Donnelly makes is that our fundamental way of being is not cognitive – and therefore that teaching is not – or should not be seen as – a cognitive activity so much as a state of being with students; being emotionally present, being responsive, being transparent, being involved in their learning rather than separate from it.
One of the reasons why I felt so moved by this paper was the realisation that the interactions and relationships of my own childhood were primarily cognitive. I don’t think my parents saw a tension between caring and cognition; they tended to demonstrate their caring primarily through encouraging our intellectual development. I myself had a spell as a step-parent in my late 20s that really did not go well, largely, I think, due to my own lack of emotional presence, and a compulsion to identify and solve problems. While psychotherapy has helped me to become a happier and healthier person, I think even that process would have been more effective had I not seen myself as a problem that needed solving…
Situating myself in a state of ‘concernful being-with-students’ was a lot easier than I thought it would be. I did wonder whether I would snap back into problem-solving mode as soon the projector failed, or someone asked a difficult question. I think there’s still room for me to be more firmly in this state when facilitating peer feedback conversations (it’s hard to resist the urge to be the problem-solver when people explicitly bring problems to the table), but generally it felt very natural; intuitive and ready-to-hand (‘zuhanden’). It was absorbed involvement – what Csíkszentmihályi calls ‘flow’.
I guess the million-dollar question is that – although I am finding this mindset incredibly valuable in enabling me to relax and enjoy being with and caring for my students – is this only the case because I already have what Searle calls ‘The Background’ and Polanyi calls ‘tacit knowledge’? Is zuhanden and vorhanden an illusion – a matter of perspective? Or is the difference as real as the space on the wall where the hammer should have been?