It’s a new year and a new beginning … or possibly another repeat. A challenge at the start of a new year is to remember the pledges and resolutions from last year. Much depends on perspective. Some resolutions never made sense in 2020 or before: Be a better person, exercise more, eat less, talk more or less, write letters, visit parents, and you know — all those things that you either do or do not, regardless of resolutions.
One perspective from 2020 centers on teaching, on being a teacher, on reaching out to students and on making sense of learning in this age of COVID-19. On resolving to think through what it means to be a teacher and to teach after Corona.
A fresh start in 2021 might be to pledge a more decisive allegiance to students, working to de-center the power that education technology holds over education and learning. Working to oppose the institutional — and sometimes useless — organization of education as a social force. Learning is much more than education. Too much technology and too much media attention gets in the way. From a student point of view, a challenge in 2021 will be our ability to see the non-educational needs that students have. The social connection. The lack of a face-to-face arena. The insecurity inherent to being a student pursuing degrees and grades. In an isolated environment.
In short; to be there, wherever “there” is.
To be available for students, to explore ways in which social interaction might thrive against the odds, waiting for a vaccine and understanding that even with the coming of immunity — some things in higher education will never quite be the same.
What changed in 2020
We might have learned to co-exist with education technology in new ways in 2020. We learned to use videoconferencing systems more frequently and for new purposes. We learned to record videos and embed them in our teaching, perhaps. We certainly learned to better understand our shortcomings. But we also learned the hard way that social connections and spaces of interaction are crucial, especially when they are not available to us.
To learn is an aspect of acquiring new knowledge, but in turn we also understand that knowledge acquisition is a socially embedded process. There is a limit to what books and talks can do. The rest is the intangible stuff, the stories and assumptions between the lines.
Certainly, technology will figure out parts of that. It always has. It has always also surprised us and amazed us when technology does. Once we thought telephones had nothing to do with education. We used phones to call mom an pop. Look at us now. We hardly use our phones for calling at all. And we learn a lot from what the mobile phone allows us to do.
What still remains and will remain is this: Touch, meaning, connection and physical linkage has a deeper value: Changing, as our approaches to learning in an age of digital connection will, that fact will remain.
On being a teacher
My best teacher of all the ones I have had? It might be hard to score a winner, but it is not so hard to determine the winning factors: Presence, and engagement.
The three candidates in my case come from two continents. They share some features.
One taught me to read Shakespeare and take notes Harvard notation style, when was way too young for that according to my home country school system. The other taught me to draw maps, and I did — of a continent that my Shakespeare teacher had never visited. I knew the river outlets of the main rivers of Europe before I knew Oedipus Rex. I understood the importance of waterways for European civilization before I understood the meaning of The Tempest.
The fact that the two examples come to mind also tells me that whatever subject matter one remembers, is one thing: That will differ from one person to the other. But the fact of being pushed, being engaged and being drawn into something of lasting value — that is the mark of a great teacher. It worked for me, as a kid in elementary school in Europe, in high school in the United States and as a graduate student many years later. What I recall is the presence, in my life, of teachers that mattered. Accordingly, I am convinced that a resolution to be a good teacher in 2021 is an aspect of simply remembering those basic lessons.
Engage. Motivate. Be there.