A Teaching Philosophy
May 2nd, 2009 by sgerald

I believe the most enduring learning happens in two main ways: (1) Through experience; (2) Through struggle. Learning is a continuous process of trial and error, just as writing or any art form is a continuous process of trial and error.

It may seem I’m saying that teachers really aren’t that important if learning is something everyone has to live through and work toward on his or her own. I am indeed saying that the most significant learning I’ve done in my life, I’ve done on my own simply because there was something I wanted to learn or something circumstances forced me to learn. Learning and teaching, however, aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. A good teacher can point people in the right direction, stimulate thought, coach students past mistakes, inspire, or just generally put the pressure on to get to work.

At the 2009 Southern Literary Festival in Jackson, Mississippi, Ann Patchett was asked if she believed writing could be taught. She said something along the lines of this: “You can teach a person to write better sentences. You can’t teach anyone to have a soul. You can’t teach anyone to care about people in the way it takes to write characters with a real connection to their humanity.”

It’s true. You can’t teach soul. You can’t teach love. You can’t teach the emotional aspects of craft that are essential to excellent writing. You can, however, expose students to works of art that tap into the souls they already have. You can draw them into conversations about writing that help them understand how to channel the love they already have in productive ways. You can help them give themselves permission to hope.

All writing is a leap of faith. Even the most experienced writers face a crisis of self-doubt when starting a new writing task. No one knows where it will lead when the pen is put to the page or the fingers begin to tap at the keys. Sometimes the best a writing teacher can do is to demand, like a physical therapist, that students work past the painful parts in order to arrive at a place that works. And like a piano teacher or a coach, the writing teacher is there along the way with examples, tools and tips to help the student writer keep trying, keep fixing one more flaw with each new attempt.

The one certain thing a physical therapist can’t do is to walk on that bum knee for you. The one certain thing a piano teacher can’t do is to hit the right note for you. Until you work it yourself, until you fix it yourself, it’s still a bum knee, and it’s still a wrong note. The same holds true for writing. Until the words can come from you in an arrangement that works, you haven’t learned what you are there for no matter what the teacher has done. That’s where the struggle part happens.

An average athlete and an average musician spend hours upon hours practicing. Writers need the same amount of practice to reach the same level of skill. A writing teacher can set goals for you and ask you to practice. The rest is up to you. Don’t be discouraged if it requires struggle. It’s supposed to. It’s a struggle for everyone. Yet there are great rewards at the other end of the struggle, and there are great rewards in the struggle itself. The writing teacher can help you figure out what the struggle is teaching you, but the struggle still has to be your own.

At the same conference where Ann Patchett spoke of the writer’s soul, Elizabeth Spencer read from a story where a character is described as someone who “would not vex you with ideas.” A person like that could not teach any subject well, but especially could not teach writing. The writing teacher’s primary responsibility is to vex you with ideas.

We have an education system based on regurgitation of information. Everything comes in a neat package that moves in a linear pattern from study guide to objective test to instant grade. It’s a secure and comfortable system, but there is very little learning involved. Real learning is messy and difficult. It makes you drink too much coffee and grind your teeth. It makes you want to call your mother for soup and your preacher for prayers. It makes you eat a whole bag of cookies without realizing you’ve even started because you’re thinking too hard about something else. It’s a dangerous thing to do while driving or handling heavy equipment.

No one can make you fight the good fight to learn how to be a better writer, but it’s never been more important that you do. In the age of social media when everyone is a journalist and every job comes with a blog, you just can’t get away with faking your way through not being able to write on the job. No one can say in this age “I’ll just have a secretary do that.” The person who can write and navigate technology won’t be the secretary. She’ll be your boss.

You have it in you to be the good writer on the job, though. You do have it in you. If you are willing to work at it, if you are willing to accept learning to write as a continuous process of trial and error, if you are willing to accept that it takes time and commitment to get there, you will do it. And your writing teacher will help you.

James Kimbrell also spoke at the 2009 Southern Literary Festival. He said of his teachers at Millsaps College, “They taught me what I needed to do to become educable.” Jimmy (once my classmate) is now a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University. His writing teachers taught him how to begin to learn, and he taught himself great things with that.

Jimmy didn’t say that his writing teachers made it easy or clear. He didn’t say that they gave him rules or filled him in on the secret of the art. He said they helped him put the first foot forward on the path of struggling that has been his lifelong relationship with writing and with success in writing.

A writing teacher can teach you how to begin. A writing teacher can teach you how to cope with the struggle. A writing teacher can teach you how to make yourself educable. From there, you’ll need the best writing teacher of all for the rest of your life: yourself and your commitment to reading and writing.

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