A million or so years ago, when I was completing my BA in English at the University of Regina I was hired by my mentor and namesake, Gene Dawson, to be his TA. This meant that I was thrust in front of a class of engineering students barely younger than me to teach them something about English grammar, which I knew very little about.
“Stay one chapter ahead and don’t let them see you sweat,” was the advice given to me then, and many times since in other situations. Anyone who plans on a career in education would do well to have that bit of advice tattooed on some part of his or her body.
I survived the class and learned something about English grammar, an increasingly rare skill to have. Here’s an example, free of charge. “Between you and I” is incorrect because between is a preposition which is followed by an object and never a subject; therefore you should be saying “Between you and me.” If you’ve been saying “Between you and I,” now you know better, so stop it. You see? Grammar can be a wonderful thing!
Since then I have taught in many place, mostly in creative writing, mostly playwriting. I have led workshops for young playwrights from around the world at World Interplay in Australia. I have taught kids from the hood in Harlem, in New York City. I’ve taught in Singapore, Lethbridge, Regina, Toronto, Vancouver and other places, classes ranging in time from a few hours to a full university semester.
My mother and her mother were both teachers. They say that the desire to teach, the need to teach, may well be hereditary, passed down through the genes. I have no reason to doubt this.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it has to do with the photo I poached and placed at the top of this post, and it comes from a Zen parable which goes like this . . . A Canadian scholar was seeking the wisdom of a famous Zen master about the secret of education. She was invited to have tea with the master. He began to pour the tea into the cup, and then continued to pour as the tea filled the cup, spilled over the edge, filled the saucer, ran onto the table and the floor, but still he kept pouring until finally she exclaimed: “Stop, Master, you can’t get any more tea into that cup!” He stopped pouring and said, “You have learned what you have come to learn from me.” And that was the end of the lesson.
Through all the teaching experience I have had over the ensuing decades since I dazzled that class of young engineers, maybe the one thing I’ve learned is when to stop pouring it in. We tend to think in quotas, of material that must be gotten through, and so we keep pouring and pouring even as our students’ eyes glaze over because their cups are full. I believe more and more that if we just allow the time and space for our students to probe the essence of the thing we are teaching, they will somehow get it, if they are meant to get it. This is certainly true in the arts. You might not want to use such a philosophy in teaching pilots how to land an airplane, or surgeons how to cut.
Just allow . . . it’s harder than it seems. It takes a measure of wisdom and patience, and a healthy ego.
Another thing I’ve learned comes from the Hippocratic Oath, which doctors say, and I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make teachers say parts of it as well.
I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and do no harm to anyone.
I always think if nothing else, if someone comes to me because he or she is interested in the theatre, don’t let me destroy their love for it. If nothing else, even if they learn nothing, do no harm. People learn in their own time, at their own pace. Maybe something they hear today will lie dormant for years, and when the time is right, suddenly it will make sense. I’ve known this to happen. A delayed reaction, sometimes by years. Finally it sinks in. We can’t always control when that will happen.
So. Just some thoughts on teaching on a cold snowy day in Calgary.
I honestly think it’s the highest calling.
Something by one of my favourite authors, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. was swirling around on Facebook the other day. I shared it with my students at St. Mary’s University College and it seems like a reasonable way to end this bit of rambling. I believe what he says is true, and that in part explains why I have spent so much time and energy over the years teaching the next great generation of artists.
Enjoy! And thanks for reading,