I’ve been thinking here lately about that long mid-career stretch where there is no clearly defined beginning or ending. You’re no longer a new faculty member, but aren’t yet an old one. From a pedagogical ...
For 35 years, I’ve been writing for The Teaching Professor from under an oak tree logo. I don’t know where the idea of the tree came from, but I’ve liked it from the beginning. Once when there was talk of changing to another logo, I strongly objected. But I haven’t spent much time thinking about why an oak tree felt like such a good fit for the publication.
Early on, I suspect I would have seen the tree as a prototype of a teaching professor—instructionally excellent, impressive in size and substance, wielding power, and commanding respect. There’s an oak tree in a field where I walk, a big branching edifice of daunting proportions. I feel small and insignificant when I pass by. Perhaps students react similarly to the vast knowledge and towering intellect they perceive at the front of the room. When outside the classroom, the teaching professors I imagined willingly stood up for teaching, strongly supported educational causes, and weren’t always welcome among those growing research reputations. My interest in teaching used to focus on its visible dimensions, the parts of the tree above ground. Learning happened underground, in the mind of the student, affected by good teaching but not under a teacher’s control.
But my understanding of teaching evolved over the years. I started to notice and then became convinced that teaching without learning had no purpose, that maybe it was learning that mattered most and stood tall in the field. What happened underground—all those teaching techniques, strategies, and approaches—existed to support the learning endeavors of students. The teaching professor came to exemplify the master learner, skilled in the acquisition of knowledge. I got into learning that way I’d gotten into teaching.
Now I find myself at yet another place. I see inseparable connections between teaching and learning, between teachers and students. They function separately, but they work together. Neither makes sense alone. Teaching is pointless without learning, and learning is how teaching improves. To be a teacher, you must first be a student. To be a student, you must first find a teacher. The necessity of each bespeaks their equality. Joined in purpose, their goal is growth—everything that potential makes possible.
Looking at an acorn, it’s hard to imagine a mighty tree, but every oak tree starts as a sapling. I hack away at an overgrown row beside our driveway. In it stand a few ragged trees—lots of autumn olive, honeysuckle, and hawthorn, all entangled with bittersweet. Clumps of grass and assorted weeds wedge in where they can. In the clutter, I find small saplings, spindly affairs with few branches and meager buds, seemingly unimpressive in their potential. I clear the underbrush and trim nearby branches, hoping they will grow stronger.
Growth happens in environments that cultivate it. Nurse trees provide the ultimate example. Dead on the forest floor, their remains feed small trees that take root in their bark. Teachers also have power to create and cultivate environments conducive to growth. But let’s not kid ourselves. Growing strong learners takes some of the life out of teachers too. In exchange, we may have a hand in creating mighty oak, and that’s a chance hard to pass up.
I am proud to have written for so many years beneath an oak tree, but now I need to spend time with the old oak in the field. Gnarled, weathered, and missing a few limbs, it still stands straight, tall, and firmly rooted, its branches reaching for the sun. From underneath, I look up and see new leaves everywhere. One season ends; another begins.
Thanks are in order—first to the many folks at Magna Publications who’ve supported my work. I’ve had a slew of good editors, and current management has provided stability and moved the company in new directions. Bill Haight has presided over Magna since I started working there in 1987. I am forever grateful that he was willing to take a chance on a publication that few thought would succeed. Thanks to those of you who started as colleagues and became friends. And to all of you, thanks for reading, commenting, and writing for us. With your support (regular reading and written contributions), The Teaching Professor will continue. Oak trees have been known to live a long time.
The Teaching Professor will continue to uphold its mission, established by Maryellen Weimer, of offering evidence-based ideas and advice that advance the cause of learner-centered teaching. Look for announcement about our new, regular contributors next week.