The Courage to Teach

John Ernissee

John Ernissee

— John Ernissee

I retired from Clarion in 2007. Looking back at my 23 years of teaching, I find that I have a persistent sense of regret, a nagging feeling of failure, magnified by the realization that I had, at the time, the tools to make the changes that I knew were possible, but that I didn’t use them. In retrospect, I think that there were multiple reasons. One simply was the stress to achieve tenure in a department characterized by extreme conformity in so many ways. I did not have the courage then to simply do things differently for fear of criticism and an array of professional consequences.

However, I think there were other contributing factors. Though I realize now that I had little interest in publishing, there was the nagging thought that this was the criterion used by the two guilds to which I belonged. One was that of my profession. A Ph.D. scientist is measured by publications, and the entire graduate experience is focused on publishing the dissertation, which is the end product of original research. I had published my Ph.D. and my M.S. as well. While a graduate student, I had accepted this as a perfectly normal expectation and had been acculturated to this as a necessary and worthwhile aspect of being a Ph.D. geologist. Yet when I arrived in Clarion, as half of a newly formed geology program, in a department without a significant publication/research tradition and no equipment with which to conduct my own research, I found myself swamped with new course preparations: something like 6 or 8 of them in the five years it took to get tenure.

The other guild is that of the professor. As college instructors, we are expected to profess. We are, after all, supposedly the font of knowledge and wisdom for our students, who are empty vessels into which all of our great insights are to be poured. The lecture was virtually the only means of teaching in my department (something characteristic of my own undergraduate and graduate programs, and, I suspect the norm across the Clarion campus). To have done anything significantly different would have been to stray from what I perceived as the normative practice of the higher-education guild. Ironically, I had known and worked with some of the more radical proponents of what might be called “student-centered” teaching. I had been involved in a variety of alternative teaching methods through my years at South Carolina and had read a fair number of criticisms of college teaching. In my gut, I knew there were better ways. Even as I taught at Clarion, I participated in workshops and did more reading about alternatives, but they never became part of my own methodologies. I did not follow the paths that they had shown me…perhaps because I liked the normative approach.

I found that I enjoyed “professing.” It was, for me, an ego-satisfying experience, with a large dose of performance included — and I got quite good at it. Some of the reason is that I’m rather lazy. I also have a strong fear of failure, and thus don’t like taking risks. Clearly my preference for lecturing was also reinforced by the very process of evaluation leading to tenure. I also felt that the overwhelming culture of Clarion discouraged exploration. Not that there were directives against it, but rather the overall tone of the campus seemed very conservative, and the weighty, nit-picking approach to promotion and tenure did not promote an atmosphere of excitement about trying new approaches.

So, I dabbled in small changes, but, looking back now, I see I was really never able to break out of “teacher-centered” teaching. I did the teaching; the students did the learning. However, the scores on the tests indicated that a significant number of them were NOT learning, and classroom observations clearly showed that many were not all that interested in being there. Oh, there were always a few…the ones down front who had succeeded by adapting to the traditional teacher-centered classroom. Some of them subsequently have become my friends. But it always bothered me that there were so many who did not become engaged by my performances.

And I, although intellectually aware of other approaches, did not change. I never found the courage or the ambition to become radically student-centered. Now that I’m retired, I still lecture on occasion…but now, at least, it is generally to adults who have NO constraints on asking questions and engaging more forcefully with me. And I enjoy it immensely. Yet here also, I remain aware that I can do better.

There is an alternative high school here in Bellingham: very student-centered, quite unconventional and very experiential. (See video below.) I’m trying to become involved with it as much as I can, for I see in it much of what I wish I could have created in my own teaching. For example, the students and faculty take a month-long trip overseas. Last year they went to Kenya and Tanzania. Previously, they’ve been to Peru. They partner with folks in these countries, usually with a school there. They do NOT use conventional “tour” programs, and the students have a lot of responsibility for planning and preparing for the trip. They do not have regular courses but, rather, have topical clusters of courses that involve real issues and get the students out into the community and into the environment. They are fully accredited, and their students do well when they move on to higher education, if they choose that path.

I am inspired. I am reconsidering education. I am, in this later stage of my life, even if only vicariously, seeing a better way to teach.


John Ernisse is a geologist, retired from Clarion University. Despite being retired from Clarion University for almost a decade, he continues to value teaching and considering how to do it more effectively.

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