teaching philosophy

When I make any attempt at reaching a conclusive “teaching philosophy,” I feel that I must first speak to my life experiences and how they relate to my desire to teach.  In this way, by describing where I have come from, I feel I may reveal much about how I process the world around me, and as a result, my relationship to the learning process. 

My life has had a distinct relationship with change.  Even from an early age, I dealt with different schools, different churches, and different relationships.  When I hear people mention how they have “known someone since childhood,” I wonder what that must be like.  I wonder how it must feel to have friends that span the distance between the different phases of life.  I wonder what it is like to grow accustomed to something.  As a result, I feel that I have grown comfortable with change and have learned to deal with ambiguity and unfamiliar situations.  The neverending learning process, filled with turns, surprises, misdirects and mysteries, feels strangely like an old friend to me.  I am perfectly at home with the concept of not knowing where a discussion might lead, or where a movement phrase might take a class.  Instead of requiring a strictly regimented, consistent timeline of information, I thrive within a stream-of-consciousness style of truth-seeking.  Of course, this is not to say that I cannot follow a logical progression – my military background and comfort with mathematics/physics are examples of this - but by being comfortable with ambiguity and change, I spend more energy exploring the process (and less energy worrying about hitting talking points.)  The greatest revelation of this is that there is more than one path that leads to knowledge.  Taking the path less traveled can lead to some amazing discoveries!

As I ask myself, “What do I believe in as a teacher (and a student, for in my mind they are intimately intertwined in a symbiotic relationship) and how does that affect my teaching philosophy?”  Well, as a student I have participated in many learning opportunities, and I have found that I have gained much more from the experiences that I enjoyed.  While this might seem to be a logical conclusion, I still feel that the concept of “play” still lacks the respect it deserves.  I have discussed the concept of the “young mind” or the “soft eyes,” ideas that relate again to the enthusiasm of the early human experience, when the world is new and every day brings new discoveries.  At this time of life, the brain is like a sponge, soaking up any new drop of information about the world it lives in.  I love this concept – and I have strongly felt that our educational system has done its very best to train this out of our minds in the name of discipline, budgeting, or control.  Play has been turned into a dirty word in higher education – but really, it is just a word for the excitement one feels when dealing with a concept that scratches that itch of learning.  If you can be excited about the concepts you are exploring, you are highly likely to a) enjoy what you are learning, b) remember what you are learning, and c) share with others what you are learning.  With excitement comes a desire to share – and by sharing you engage the learning community. 

A great teacher believes in themselves, not in a narcissistic or self-aggrandizing way; but simply put, a great teacher is comfortable enough in their abilities and experiences that they are willing to become vulnerable within the process of learning.  I believe in myself as a teacher.  I have always felt comfortable within this role – and for the following reasons that keep me interested in the role:  I never needed to be famous, nor do I need to be constantly thanked and congratulated.  I love – LOVE – the experience of digging deep into a concept, engaging in the mystery of discovery, and watching a student start running toward some moment of real learning.  I love being there as a student uncovers some skill they didn’t know they have.  I love helping someone grow in confidence and responsibility.  A great teacher believes in the power of each student to forge their own path – and once they begin the journey, wants nothing more than for them than to outgrow their “old mind.” 

My teaching philosophy might get bogged down in details about how Benjamin Mielke deals with this, enjoys that, and strives for these.  However, I feel I must also mention what I value in my students.  I value a student that is willing to give the effort required to participate in the active learning process.  While learning and knowledge may definitely be force-fed, I feel that laziness or unwillingness by either student or teacher disrespects the “great truths” and the effort needed to begin a relationship with them. 

In speaking of these truths, I am constantly impressed by those students who would be willing to trust in a teacher to help lead them toward an experience of great learning.  Any relationship requires an output of trust to survive, and a student that is willing to open their mind up to something foreign or uncomfortable is ready to participate fully in the action of contemplation.  Of course, having said this, I find myself also playing devil’s advocate – and advocating a mutually necessary amount of healthy distrust as a vital part of the learning process.  Had Galileo been absolutely faithful to his teachers, he might never have discovered a great truth about a widely misconceived idea about our world.  If a student is actively engaged in the learning process, they will be sufficiently comfortable and empowered to consider all available information and then arrive at their own conclusions.  I love students that are willing to challenge my opinions – because who is to say that I am more “right” than they might be?  As Parker Palmer has said, a community of learning will allow us to openly discuss our ideas and arrive at a general consensus.  One opinion does not real truth make.

In conclusion, there are many aspects of both student and teacher that contribute in a healthy way to the learning process.  This is extremely functional, because truth and learning exist in many different forms, ideas, and places.  No one skill or ability, no one environment, dogma or teaching philosophy is going to arrive at a place of true knowledge.  By appreciating the diversity in both populations (students and teachers) and actively taking part in the learning process, a mutually beneficial system is installed that feeds not only the learner but the learned.  By celebrating and encouraging this diversity, we cease to limit our options and open ourselves up to the great mysteries as they become evident. 

Another statement on teaching

The qualities that have helped me arrive at a place of confidence as a dancer also have direct applications in my experiences as a teacher.  But let’s not beat around the bush – I love teaching.  Not quite as much as dancing, but close.  Very close.  If I didn’t have this passion for education, this comfort in the role of guide, all the concepts I’ll talk about next would be wasted.

A great teacher listens and communicates well.  Teachers are the interpreters of our society.  They continually strive to translate complex concepts and ethereal ideas into easily digestible morsels of information, while simultaneously accounting for drastically different learning styles.  As a teacher, I have a strong desire to connect with my students and to discover how to reach them.  Whether it’s spicing up a lecture with media, handouts, or exercises, or finding that sticky point in my class combinations, I love planning exciting and well-rounded classes.  I love keeping an eye on the “big picture,” the greater concept that individual lectures connect to.

Those with a true dedication to service and a giving disposition make great teachers.  I care deeply about the success and development of my students (just as much, if not more, than I do for my own success.)  I understand the value in helping those around me expand their knowledge and achieve their dreams.  During my time in the Navy, my workcenter received four young electricians at the same time.  Rather than protect my own rank and status by dragging out their development, I did everything I could to make sure my junior electricians learned as much as they could.  I brought each one of them along to every repair job.  I held training classes for their advancement exams.  By the time I left the ship, each one of them had been promoted and was a dependable and knowledgeable (although still junior) electrician. 

Although being in the Navy wasn’t the best career fit for me, it did give me a cornucopia of life experiences to draw from.  While some may possess a natural ability to teach, the evolution of a truly great teacher requires an abundance of life experience, hard work, success, and failure.  A great teacher has tried, and failed, reorganized, and persevered until a goal has been achieved.  We must all fail in order to achieve success.  Even success is merely a temporary stop along the path to brilliance.  By challenging their students and allowing them to fail in a productive manner, a great teacher points their students in a positive direction and then gets out of their way.

Being great at something has to be earned.  Through my life experiences, I’ve learned that true learning is rarely instantaneous – so I have learned to be patient with my students and to instill persistence in them.  Learning takes time, and most students have their own internal clock when it comes to hitting that “Eureka!” moment.  When it does happen – those are the moments that you have to keep an eye out for.  That is manna from heaven for me as a teacher.  The chance to enjoy the success of those students who come to class ready to experience something new and wonderful, and there are always those students in every class, is what keeps me excited about coming to class.

“Facts” change.  Knowledge evolves over time. A great teacher cultivates a healthy relationship with ambiguity to allow for growth and fluidity.  A great teacher realizes that there is rarely one “right” answer to a question.  Being “right” or “wrong” is seldom a helpful state, especially in any creative discipline.  For this reason, I incorporated the use of a small “Judgment Card” in my non-major Creative Process classes.  By leaving their Judgment Cards at the door, students felt free to explore, play, and create without worrying whether they were doing something the right way.  

Finally, art-making is not about winning.  I believe that many people confuse the term “healthy competition” with the practice of setting and achieving goals, and setting high standards for the quality of one’s work.  Competition is about me vs. you.  It is a survival instinct.  But in the place of a classroom, or in a collaborative work environment like a rehearsal process, I’m not sure how valuable of a skill it is for the greater good.  For this reason, I have chosen to focus my energies as a teacher and artist on highlighting and utilizing the individual skills each one of us has inside, rather than self-aggrandizing or self-promoting.

I’d just like to close by saying that I have devoted my life to service and the advancement of those around me.  At every stop in the road, from my military service to my graduate studies, I have found ways to teach, to guide, and to work with others for the betterment of the group.  My greatest goal for the future is to get the opportunity to continue to do so.