Tag: know thyself

Politics in the Classroom

In the midst of some intense political happenings in Washington, DC, it seems appropriate to ask: how does a teacher responsibly and ethically handle, or remember regarding, politics in the classroom?

Here is the fruit of my research:

  • Recognize your own positions. We all develop beliefs in response to our perceptions, feelings, interpretations of the past, interpretations of our own lives, and what we hear from family, friends, colleagues, the media, social media, our culture, etc. We must know our own positions and values, the evidence and causes behind them, and be conscious of how these positions and values affect our teaching and presentation of material.
  • Remember and acknowledge how our values affect our course design and lesson planning.  If we talk about slaves, we are influenced by a Marxist approach to history that encourages discussion of the subaltern. Depending on how we structure the lesson or where the conversation goes, issues of race and economics will be involved.
  • There is an uneven power dynamic between students and teachers. Most teachers develop the assignments for the students. Teachers evaluate and grade students. Ethical teachers cannot give points to students with whom they agree politically.
  • There is a difference between “settled issues” and “open issues.” Franke Wilmer uses the example as the Holocaust as a settled issue. It happened; it’s very sad a historical fact. Diane Hess uses the example of climate change. It is a settled issue that the climate is changing, but the appropriate response to climate change is the open question. Similarly, regarding an issue we might encounter in a Latin or Classics class, it is a settled issue that rape is bad, but the punishment for the rapist seems to be at the core of the debate raging today. It is important to differentiate between these for ourselves, and for our students. It may foster more constructive dialogue and it help us recognize that we are more similar to one another than our current polarization implies. Wilmer, though, acknowledges that drawing the line between “settled” and “open” can be difficult.
  • Focus on issues, not events. Often, we do not have enough knowledge of specific, very recent events, such as a police officer shooting Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, to discuss them adequately or fairly; but we do have sufficient knowledge to focus on issues, such as racial inequality, the militarization of the police, police wearing body cameras, etc. This will also help students see the historical context and systemic issues behind current events.
  • There is a difference between “public”/”civic” values and “private” values. To quote Tom Huddleston, “The kind of values that characterise a pluralist democracy, such as ours [referring to the UK, but the same applies to the USA], include: social justice; political equality; tolerance; human rights; respect for the rule of law; and a commitment to negotiation and debate as the ideal way of resolving public conflict. This difference [between public and private values] allows a distinction to be made between the values that may be legitimately taught in schools–indeed, which schools have a duty to teach–and those that are more properly the province of the home, particular interest groups and religious or political parties. Thus, … [teachers] may quite legitimately condemn and prohibit injustices which contravene our community values, such as racism and human rights abuse – wherever they take place.”
  • Provide all points of view regarding an issue, and present them in a neutral manner. You can play ‘devil’s advocate’ to challenge what seems like an early emerging one-sided consensus, or encourage students to share and explain their own thoughts. You can invite a variety of community members into the classroom (especially if they are parents who are worried about you indoctrinating their children).
  • Do not establish yourself as the sole authority on a subject. This will demonstrate your open mind and the value of other opinions, and it will help students see that there are a variety of opinions.
  • Ask students to actively engage in a discussion of the issues. To quote Tom Huddleston again, “If children become accustomed to discussing their differences in a rational way in the primary years, they are more likely to accept it as normal in their adolescence. Citizenship education helps equip young people to deal with situations of conflict and controversy knowledgeably and tolerantly. It helps to equip them to understand the consequences of their actions, and those adults around them. Pupils learn how to recognize bias, evaluate argument, weigh evidence, look for alternative interpretations, viewpoints and sources of evidence; above all to give good reasons for the things they say or do, and to expect good reasons to be given by others.” In other words, do not just teach the issues, but teach the skills of being a good citizen.
  • Have rules for discussion. Students should be respectful and attentive, and they should approach the discussion with open minds. Opposing opinions should not be dismissed but respectfully interrogated so that they are better understood. The discussion should be based on fact-checked evidence, and arguments should be critiqued on their merits (not on whether or not the teacher agrees). Teaching students these rules for less controversial, political issues will establish a safe, respectful environment for discussing more hot button issues.
  • We must model approaching issues with an open mind. Do not reveal your own preferences unconsciously through facial expressions, gestures, tones of voice, choice of respondents during a discussion, etc. Do not make sarcastic comments or jokes that are political or partisan in nature–that polarizes students.
  • If you share your opinion, make it clear that it is your opinion. State that it is “in my opinion.” Step out from behind a podium. State that students must make up their own minds.
  • Do not focus on cynicism and fear. Find upbeat messages and the good side of what may seem like crazy times, and share them with your students.
  • Are students initiating the discussion because they want to talk about it? or are you? There are differing levels of comfort that come with each cause.
  • To what extent are your students, their families, and their communities personally affected by an issue? Emotional levels will run high or low depending on your answer, or you may need to devote more or less time to issues that directly affect students before their learning can take place.
  • Should students be allowed to opt out of the discussion if it is particularly hard for them due to their religious background or personal past? Considerations similar to those for trigger warnings apply, on the one hand. On the other hand, Paula McAvoy mentions that we don’t let students opt out of tests, democratic discussion allows participants to walk away, and democracies rely on participants overcoming their discomfort regarding discussing their opinions.
  • Is the issue something all students ought to know about, regardless of whether it is in the curriculum?
  • We are a very politically polarized country at the moment. Current political polarization may mean that some comments are interpreted as political even though both sides agree on the idea (despite caricatures on the media or social media) or even though you did not mean them to be political, and it may mean that emotions will run high during discussions. However, respectful discussion is what is missing in our national discourse, so it may be beneficial to encourage it in our schools–to teach students how to be good citizens.
  • Remember there are difficult balances to maintain here, and success will not be immediate with every group of students. Don’t give up trying. It is important and engaging to connect Classics to the modern world, and to acknowledge the modern world’s effects on our perceptions of the ancient world. These attempts show why Classics matters. But the questions of whether and how political to be–that’s up to you, your students, and your administration.


Work-Life Balance. Stress. Being yourself.

After all the stress of exams, everyone is taking a break and teachers are preparing for how to make the winter and spring courses go more smoothly and better.  We also happen to be coming up on New Year’s Day with its resolutions and plans to change our lives, and the hope that we keep with them beyond February 1.  The timing seems apt to respond to a request from one of my readers: “How you have integrated your physical and emotional health into your teaching.”  As responsibilities and demands on one’s time grow, it is harder to stay healthy.

In some ways, I am not the ideal person to write this post.  Sometimes, I am flying by the seat of my pants, sometimes I feel emotionally and physically healthy.  I struggle with these issues too.  I am also single and do not have family or child-care demands at home, and right now I am a graduate student with relatively few departmental responsibilities.  The demands on my time are somewhat limited compared to others, but I do agree that there is a benefit in reminding myself and others of some strategies to maintain a healthy physical and emotional life.

So, even though I’m not expert on this, here are some strategies:

  • Know thyself.  Know your habits–which are healthy, which are unhealthy, where you can improve, what character traits can help you improve–what you care about, what you don’t care about.  And use this knowledge to determine what you want to improve or how you can improve or what traits you may need to adjust first.
  • Eat healthy, unprocessed foods.  This can have physical and emotional benefits.
  • Make time for exercise.  Not only can exercise make your body healthier and cut down your body fat, but exercise causes your body to release endorphines which improve and/or level your mood.  This leveling aspect of exercise has been one of the main reasons that I have focused on exercise.
  • To do lists.  If you have a list that tells you what you need to do and when it needs to be completed, you don’t have to stress yourself out trying to remember everything.  The process of making and reviewing the list helps you prioritize tasks.  If you’re a workaholic, including personal items (like spending time with friends or on a hobby) on the to do list can make sure these happen too.
  • Treat yourself.  Sometimes you just need to let loose and have fun instead of being responsible all the time.
  • Make plans and goals.  I am a planner so I feel good when I have a plan and I am working towards achieving that goal.  This also helps me prioritize what I should and should not be doing with my life (sort of like student learning objectives).
  • Be fine with a few steps back. We can’t be perfect all the time.  Sometimes we do fly by the seat of our pants, and sometimes vegetarians eat meat.  You just can’t beat yourself up over a small step back if you’re making good over all progress.  Focus on the long-term.
  • Remember that change comes gradually.  When I decided to become a vegetarian, I had meat in my refrigerator and I didn’t know how to cook many vegetarian dishes, let alone very healthy ones. Now, several years later, I cook a variety of healthy dishes.  It took me time to learn these things, and I am happy that I did.
  • Follow your beliefs.  I became a vegetarian in part because I don’t like the industrialized food system and its treatment of animals or the environment.  I feel much better for not being a part of that anymore.  The more you believe in your actions, the happier you will be with yourself.
  • Find a supportive environment.  Friends, family, and colleagues can help you work towards your goals and do what you want to do with your life.  For example, not all schools and workplaces provide the flexibility or expectations to help teachers and employees obtain good childcare, but some do.  I, for example, was happy to teach my friend’s class so she could have maternity leave.  Celia Schultz‘s article, “The Classic Conundrum: On the Balance Between Work and Home,” in Cloelia 2013 is a great discussion of how important child care can be and ways faculty can support parents in their department.

I am sure there are many more strategies out there that are helpful, but these are the ones that I have found helpful.  Meditation and mindfulness are also very helpful ways to manage stress and to know thyself better.

The Courage to Teach

Last week, I was at the XVth International Numismatic Congress. On the way to and from the conference, I finished reading the tenth anniversary edition of Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach. The book has two central theses and they both resonated particularly well with me as I was going to this conference.

Theme One: Know Thyself and teach with integrity and authenticity. You should not focus on the techniques of teaching, but you should focus on the goals—inspiring students and opening their minds to the ideas of your field—and on why you’re in the room teaching them. What got you interested in your subject? Why do you love it? What do you like about your subject? Which mentors inspired you and who inspires you now? Learn these answers and then use this self-knowledge to guide your teaching—use strategies and methods that are you, not someone else. If you are unsure about how to address something, ask “How does my own teaching persona and philosophy guide me in this instance?”

This theme speaks to me because I am currently trying to figure out and articulate myself, my teaching philosophy, and my career goals while I finish graduate school and go on the job market.

Theme Two: Teach within a “Community of Truth.” Palmer points to two different extreme, models of teaching: (1) a teacher-focused method in which the teacher dispenses the objective truth and serves as an intermediary between the students and the subject’s primary material, and (2) a student-focused approach in which subjectivity and the validity of everyone’s opinions as “truth” predominates. As an intermediate and superior method, Palmer proposes that teaching happen within “communities of truth” in which all members of the class are “knowers” who access the “truth” through direct engagement with primary sources, the standard thought processes and logic of the discipline, personal perspectives and interests, and conversations dedicated to developing a better understanding of the subject.

This model resonated particularly strongly with me while I was on my way to the XVth INC (and thinking broadly about research for my dissertation). We were all trained in the ways of numismatics, offering new perspectives and/methods, and working to better understand coins. I was very pleased to hear many helpful suggestions on my presentation and offer some for other people’s papers. I have been looking forward to and am enjoying looking through my data (and additional data) to look at my topic through more perspectives in order to further our knowledge. I was also very pleased by the kindness and collegiality that seemed to spread throughout the conference. In many ways, it was the kind of atmosphere you want in a classroom: very learned and cheerful discussion focused on primary sources (and Palmer does note the similarities between research communities and his idea of a community of truth). Yet, there was a major difference between the congress and a classroom: we were all trained in numismatics (even if our knowledge levels were vastly different) but this is not always the case in a classroom.

Therefore (and this is also a reflection of my own views of myself as a teacher—Palmer’s other theme), I suggest a slight adjustment to Palmer’s idea. I suggest that one of the “knowers” (i.e. the teacher, or the “guiding knower” in my diagram) is closer to the subject material and the discipline’s norms and guides the other knowers (i.e. the students, or “growing knowers” here). This is not to say that the teacher/guiding knower knows everything or cannot learn from the students/growing knowers. Indeed, teachers should learn and grow too (guides can, afterall, also lose the path sometimes).

Courage to Teach Adapted

Palmer’s focus on the primary sources and evidence helps mitigate—and sometimes relies on—the teacher being closer to the subject material. Exemplary primary sources are perfect for class discussions because, as Palmer points out, they provide data and gaps. These gaps can be filled by a discussion that interrogates and analyzes the source as well as teaches the students the thought processes, norms, and analytical techniques of the discipline. I would also add that the reliance on primary sources levels the playing field so that all students–and the teacher to some extent–all have the same documents in front of them to draw on. Palmer, though, is right that we must provide time for these discussions and balance between sharing lots of information to fill the informational gaps on the one hand and guiding/allowing student discussion to fill the gaps. If we can mange this balance and develop this community, it allows us to share our passion with the students and each other, motivate us further, and help students learn more material, learn more deeply, and learn more lastingly.