I came to this post by way of Martha Burtis's meditations on lifelong learning and Dean Shareski's musings on what he should call himself (if not "teacher"). I'm also thinking about Martha's post about Barbara Ganley's 2007 Faculty Academy talk and pretty much anything Barbara herself has ever written on her blog about taking risks.
I found myself casting about for professions where people teach and nurture but where risk is involved. And when I re-read Dean's description of what he does--"I teach, I lead, I share, I encourage, I critique, I monitor, I connect, I care, I model"--I realized that the metaphor that for me best describes teaching is midwifery.
During my entire pregnancy, my contact with medical doctors was limited to about 20 minutes. With the exception of one sonogram, one morning where we thought I might have preeclampsia, and one moment in the delivery room where an obstetrician popped her head in the room and asked "Is that baby going to come out of there?", my care during my pregnancy with Lucas was provided entirely by midwives. But the midwives were always there, rotating through my office appointments and my labor, reassuring with their calmness and cheer and expertise, answering all my questions on my prenatal visits and during birthing class.
While I'm sure I'm not the first to equate teaching with midwifery (especially regarding helping students to "birth" ideas), I wonder how many of us have examined this metaphor in all of its richness and utility. What I like most about it is that it reverses completely the metaphor of students as vessels to be filled. We're bringing something dynamic and lively out of students rather than simply pouring in static content. Again: We're no longer pitchers in the sense that we, too, are vessels that pour content into students. We are, like midwives, catchers.
How are the best teachers like midwives?
- We have specialized knowledge, but we understand that we're not in the business of passing on all that specialized knowledge to our students. To extend the metaphor: using our knowledge and experience, we coach people through the birthing experience; we're not teaching them to be midwives.
- We prepare students for the learning experience: here's what you can expect, here's what will likely happen, here's our goal.
- We honor, as much as possible, the students' perception of what a learning experience should be. Many women go into labor with a birth plan--for example, no drugs, no "medical interventions" like forceps--but end up having an entirely different, and not necessarily less satisfying, experience.
- We monitor progress using multiple tools, some conventional and some not so much. We encourage students to reflect on these modes of assessment and evaluation.
- Drawing on my own experience in the delivery room: Midwives wean us off the pain meds if we're not pushing hard enough to make progress. The best teachers aren't afraid to make students uncomfortable as long as the learning is productive and takes place in a safe atmosphere.
- We know when to intervene and when to let students labor.
- We acknowledge that there are multiple people involved in the learning experience, that the student need not "go it alone" even if she is doing the bulk of the physical or intellectual work on a particular project.
- We follow up with the student shortly after the learning experience to be sure she doesn't feel overwhelmed and that she's retaining the intellectual skills she needs to nurture her own newborn critical and creative thinking skills.
- We encourage students to tell stories about their learning and to share their experience with others. We help them document the experience as appropriate.
- You must be open to the possibility that things will not go as planned.
- You should try to have at least one friend in the room.
- You must trust the midwife.
- It is only the beginning of a journey marked alternately by great joy and great difficulty.
How are you making yourself less of a pitcher and more of a catcher? (Or do you think I'm totally off-base?)