Preparing to Teach

Leadership Text
Leadership Text

After Canadian Thanksgiving, I am scheduled to teach a 6 week intensive course on leadership called LDRS 302: Historical Concepts and Theories of Leadership. I’ll be using Peter Northouse’s text, which is quite comprehensive. But one thing I do each semester before I teach is remind myself what makes for better teaching. Parker Palmer is one of the very best for this. Leadership lends itself to introspection and the subtitle of Palmer’s text is “Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.”

IMHO good teachers know themselves first. Some people are more self-aware than others. I like to think I know myself, but of course we all have blind spots. Palmer reminds me that good education is in community. Truth and learning are tested, proven, and improved as we interact with others. I teach as I am, and if I am truly living in community, my self-knowledge and therefore my teaching will be honed by those around me.

One of my favourite quotes in the book is found on page 94, in the chapter on Knowing in Community:

…good education is always more process than product. If a student has received no more than a packet of information at the end of an educational transaction, that student has been duped. Good education teaches students to become both producers of knowledge and discerning consumers of what other people claim to know. 

One must also be discerning about the process too. I’m sure you’ve all seen a slick presentation that bamboozled you with flashy technology that hid (or at least tried to hide) certain truths. Engaging learners in a process means that whatever we use to communicate ideas must leave room for the learner to participate. This is one of my beefs with using technology in classrooms. This may be the age of Instagram (and you can find me on Instagram @gvmcmillan) but simply showing flashy slides or videos or whatever else you want can obscure and exclude. A neatly wrapped package of a course may be tidy but it isn’t learning! I believe learning is messy.

I learn by doing. I can read a cookbook all I want and it will simply be words. But when I get half-way through a recipe and have to ask my wife, “What does it mean to ‘fold in the egg whites’?” I know my learning won’t be complete until I try it. And if you don’t get any flour on yourself in the process, have you really learned? Neat and clean presentations do not equal teaching or learning. They aim to impress. I’m not interested in impressing in the short term. I want to impress a model – a method – on my students. They’d better be prepared to encounter real problems with no shiny flow charts to a solution. We’re going to put the subject of leadership in the middle of the room and have at it, from each student’s perspective (see Palmer’s diagram on page 102). It’s going to be a little noisy, a little angry, a little fun, and most of all a little humbling as we discover that this isn’t as easy as we first thought.

Leadership tends toward simplistic jargon. “Leadership is having followers.” “Leadership is influence.” “Leadership is transformational.”

Uh huh. Want to tell me what that means in real life? I believe that leadership is about calling people to action and solving problems and trying to get to a better place in life. But we must understand that all leadership is set in a time and place, with all sorts of socio-political-economical-et-cetera-ical issues pushing leaders around. My humblest goal in the course is to give students a chance to step back, get out of the rat race and gain perspective. They need to learn how bound we are to our cultures and what that means for our leadership. We will learn to be humble about ourselves and also with our critiques of other leaders and their theories and applications.

Parker Palmer is good for me and my egocentric tendencies. Hopefully I can teach in such a way as to give my students courage and humility as we seek to know ourselves and how we lead.

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