One of my last responsibilities as a university professor was presenting important lessons learned durning my forty years of teaching. This is my presentation:
MY LAST LECTURE: May 13, 2009
Today is quite an experience for me. While visiting with my wife she mentioned the title “Last Lecture” left her thinking it is a bit like offering a Eulogy at my own funeral. Though not a funeral perhaps in some way it is a memorial service marking a significant milestone in my life. So it is with a wide variety of feelings that I share my “Last Lecture: Everything I needed to know about CSUF I learned in Forty Years”
When I arrived in Fresno California for the fall 1969 semester, I was excited. Fresno State College was my first full-time teaching position. With great anticipation I looked forward to teaching students about children and families. And what was teaching? Giving Information to Students. I considered my profession to include vital information which students needed to know: theoretical frameworks, important research findings, the development of children from conception through adolescence, Eriksen’s Eight stages of Human Development, Duvall’s Eight Stages of Family Development, Family Systems Theory, etc., etc., etc.. In some way I guess I was operating at the Knowledge and Comprehension levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, the level of memorization. All these ideas and more needed to be “taught” to the students. And I was the teacher.
I remember the first test I prepared. It covered so much significant material. What a shock it was when out of a class of over thirty only three students finished the test in the allotted time. It was also a shock that first semester that some students weren’t as enthusiastic about learning as I was about teaching. The most significant shocks however occurred when I read my course evaluations. Several students didn’t like the class; others thought I was narrow-minded and a few even wrote they would not recommend this class to their peers.
Thus began my full-time teaching career. Reflecting back on those early semesters brings a sense of gratitude. I appreciate that students were given the chance to voice their perceptions of my teaching. Because of their honesty and my willingness to hear their voices I began a quest. The quest was to better understand the complexity of teaching and learning. I wanted to learn in what ways teaching was more than giving information to students. I wanted to become an effective participant in learning experiences that were informative and enjoyable.
During the searching process I discovered an Alfred Whitehead statement in The Aims of Education and Other Essays: “In a sense, knowledge shrinks as wisdom grows, for details are swallowed up in principles. . . .the habit of the active utilization of well-understood principles is the final possession of wisdom.” p.58. I began to realize learning was most significant when it not only involved deep understanding but also the ability and desire to apply these concepts in daily life.
The shift during my early years here, the shift from being a conveyer of information to a participant in deep learning has made all the difference. I have loved being a teacher, I have loved being a student, and I have loved being in the classroom. As Joseph Campbell suggests I found my BLISS.
As a part of my ongoing journey in the wonderfully complex world of education I have come to embrace five principles. Though they are important for me, I hope you will hold these five ideas lightly as they are not intended to be proscriptive or even declarative. They are just a sharing of what my experiences have led me to at this point in time. I also hope you will hold in a gentle way the student comments that I include. As I considered quoting some students I became concerned that the quotes were overly self-affirming. And though my ego may like the affirmation the purpose of including them is to provide examples of how these five principles were experienced in the classroom.
1. Each student is a “lamp to be lit rather than a vessel to be filled.” As I mentioned earlier, at the beginning of my career my focus was on being the teacher and the content of my teaching. It was primarily a cognitive process. The responsibility in the classroom was for me to be prepared with clear lecture material and for the student to pay attention, do their assignments, and demonstrate their understanding through tests, papers, and discussions. Little attention was given to the complexity of the learner.
As I learned to look beyond the material to the learner my focus and approach altered. I discovered each student has an emotional energy which when tapped is the basis for significant learning. I surprised myself that I had overlooked the importance of emotions. You see the day I graduated from High School was the happiest day of my life because I no longer had to sit in a classroom. Emotionally by the twelfth grade I had been “beaten down” by education. An example of this occurred in third grade when my emotional 8 years old was ignored and ridiculed. I felt a ill and asked permission to go to the restroom. It took me longer than my teacher thought it should so when I returned to the classroom the teacher asked where I had been. She did this in such a way that all my fellow students looked up from their reading and listened to my response, “I have been to the bathroom.” She than requested the attention of all the students and stated, “Students, Richard is telling me he has been in the restroom all this time, Richard is an example of a LYIER.” Whatever else she said that day I did not hear. In retrospection I think she was so focused on her job of writing on the board, assigning homework and keeping me and the other students “in line” that she could not see the ill and now hurt/embarrassed child standing in front of the classroom.
I started out also seeing my students through a narrow lens that some approaches to education offer. This came vividly to my attention when one of my students attended a community parenting class I was teaching and afterward asked, “Why do you teach here so differently than you do in our class?” I asked her to tell me more about the distinctions she saw. She talked about my “aliveness” with the community group as opposed to my focus on covering the material at the university. I realized my assumptions were different about teaching students at State and parents in the community. For the community folks I wanted to make the materials meaningful, engaging, and applicable while I viewed the university student as being responsible to learn the information.
When I began to see the university student more holistically I recognized the importance the both the emotional and intellectual domains. I began using a wider variety of teaching modalities to more fully engage the student. I told stories, did some acting of case studies, invited more discussions and elicited many more student perspectives. I realized important learning involves active participation, “lighting the student fire” so to speak.
“It is amazing how helpful this class has been to me . . . Each day I was challenged. This is the first class I have taken the time to read all of the text and found it worthwhile. The presentations ...were impressive and will be long lasting. Dr. B shared an enthusiasm that kept the class involved and interested. He used a different style of teaching and I am thankful for it. The instructor used real life situations and even hypothetical situations to get the class to think a little more and get involved.” Heather Marie Harbin.
2. There is inherent worth in every student. Unfortunately there were adversarial elements in my early teaching. They were subtle, embedded in my experiences as a student within the traditional academic culture. With few exceptions most of my teachers seemed to place themselves above the students, to be “better than” and “against” the class in some way. It seemed education all too often involved what I have come to call “being in the thick of thin things.” Points on tests and papers were argued over because the grade was the ultimate prize. And your value as a student was based on the grades you got. Each had to measure up and prove their worth. It was as though I repeated the attitudes of my seventh grade teacher Mr. Salem. His seating chart for the class was arranged by academic achievement. Ron Yett or Joan Valusik sat in the first desk to the teachers right on the first row on a periodically rotating basis. When Ron was at that desk Joan was in the desk next to it and when Joan had “won” the “honor” of being in the prized desk, Ron would certainly be next to her. Poor Charlie Agular was always in desk three and never broke into the top two positions. Mr. Salem would use Ron/Joan as the basis of comparison to the rest of us; “Why can’t you study as hard as... do as well on the test as... be as attentive as....” These comparisons discouraged me and I remained toward the back of the class all year. I don’t think I was valued by Mr. Salem.
I now see students as remarkable peers-in-progress with rich and diverse perspectives and important needs. They present a beautiful tapestry of backgrounds. I acknowledge their diversity by being interested in each one and in creating a learning atmosphere of “good will.” Each student has value no matter how they are performing academically
“. . .This brings me to the final thing that meant the most to me, that was you Dr. Berrett. You have a very big heart and a tenderness about you. You have an eternal hope for a better life for all of mankind and this reflects in your teaching. All some people want in life is someone who will take the time to listen to them and you certainly have both the patience and compassion for that. This is something that cannot be taught in a book or memorized for a test; it comes from within. You set a great example for all of us future teachers.” Heather Pattengale.
3. Reflection and discussion promote critical thinking and behavioral change. Since taking a Writing Across the Curriculum workshop some years ago I have frequently used some form of reflective writing. Journals, papers, and time to reflect on what has occurred all contribute to learning that effects behavior. Looking inward and then discussing it in a sensitive and caring manner with others opens minds and hearts. I believe education is of greatest value when it facilitates learning about the complexity of this world, learning about our nature and potential and provides experiences that promote, to the fullest extent, the unfolding of our potential and the potential of others.
“This was definitely the most educational class that I have taken throughout my years of schooling. I am a better person by taking this course. I know this because I have already noticed the positive effects that it has had on me. I look at the world with much more appreciation for little things as well as big things. It has taught me to take one day at a time and never take a second for granted. It has also taught me many critical thinking skills. I don’t recall ever thinking so much about a course’s content.” Brittany Sargent.
4. Service is a profound learning vehicle. Martin Luther King Jr. stated "Education without direct action is a one sided social value. Direct action without education is a meaningless expression of pure energy." In the 1970's I added a simple assignment in my Family Relationships course. Students spent an afternoon or evening with “a lonely, isolated aged person.” Prior to this visit classroom discussion of the “Aging” stage of the family life cycle occurred as well as exploration of appropriate discussion topics the students might include in their visit. I did not anticipate that students would report this assignment as being the most meaningful of their college assignments. Since then I have been dedicated to the application of education through meaningful action. Community Engagement and specifically Service-learning provide students time to serve in the community in a significant way and gain knowledge relevant to the course curriculum. The outcomes of this engagement are often extraordinary.
“I realize that in this sensitive environment there is no room for the egocentric or ethnocentric fallacy, as well as any other biased or prejudicial beliefs. As a college student, through this experience, I have had a firsthand opportunity to honor other cultures and their sacred value systems. Service-Learning is such an enriching experience. I recognize many positive outcomes personally because of my volunteer work. It changed the way I look at life and it also changed my relationships with others. Life is short and I’ve realized that I need to appreciate and live life to the fullest. This service has made me a better person. CFS 133-S Student
5. Being fully present to students is my greatest contribution. In the last decade I became interested in mindfulness meditation and Buddhism. My interest is not one of worship or religion but rather one of learning how to live in the moment. Too often my life seems like an “out of body experience.” While talking with a student my mind is on the phone call I need to make; a student’s statement triggers memories and I have regressed decades. It has become all too clear that when I am not totally present I am missing out and others notice. My goal is to be in contact with each student, to really listen to their spoken and unspoken messages and to invite them to really be with one another and me. When I am truly there, with my body, heart and mind, teaching and learning are the outcome.
“I see myself as a better person, I know others do too because they have told me so. Above all I have learned to appreciate my life. This class and you will stand out more than any I have taken at C.S.U.F. You taught us, or at least me, not only by your lectures and words, but also by your “forma de ser” your way of being. For this, and so much more, I thank you.” Annabel H. Ojeda.
My journey began in 1969 and now comes to a crossroads. These five principles have played a decisive role in my quest to be a teacher. My journey has confirmed that teaching is for more than conveying concepts; it is touching lives, your own and others.
I thank you for being here to celebrate these forty years of learning. They have been EXTRAORDINARY.