We Are Still Teachers

Amy Collier writes of a conversation about not-yetness she had on a plane:

“Upon hearing my views on learning and research, a man sitting next to me on a plane last week (a retired & now consulting K12 administrator) said, “I spent my whole career trying to get teachers to write specific outcomes and now you’re telling me I should have let it be a free for all?” It’s easy to take a polarized approach—the hard work is figuring out how to bring these perspectives and approaches to the same table and value equally what each brings.”

People often think that a critical pedagogical approach, or any teaching approach that questions evidence-based practices like assessment and outcomes and scaffolding necessarily leads to an “anything goes” attitude toward learning. This is the pendulum swing and eye-roll that masks the fear of a loss of control. And a great deal of effort has been put into control and surveillance in education, from traditional instructional design approaches like alignment of outcomes to content to assessment—the tidy suit-and-tie version of learning—to educational technologies like Turnitin and the LMS.

Most who come into teaching or instructional design today are not aware of the way their practices are complicit in surveillance and control. Not-yetness, then, can feel like a sacrifice of what makes teaching teaching. Messy learning looks like a “free-for-all”.

In the most daring teaching situations, it can feel that way to an observer, and even to a student. The truth is that many learners rebel against teaching that leaves space for their agency, because for years they have been told to do what the teacher says. So what happens when the teacher asks learners to do what they themselves say?

Messiness is one thing, though, and anarchy quite another. In his last book, Pedagogy of Indignation, Paulo Freire offers:

“I am convinced that no education intending to be at the service of the beauty of the human presence in the world, at the service of seriousness and ethical rigor, of justice, of firmness of character, of respect for differences…can fulfill itself in the absence of the dramatic relationship between authority and freedom. It is a tense and dramatic relationship in which both authority and freedom, while fully living out their limits and possibilities, learn, almost without respite, to take responsibility for themselves as authority and freedom. It is by living lucidly the tense relationship between authority and freedom that one discovers the two need not necessarily be in mutual antagonism…

“The freedom that derives from learning, early on, how to build internal authority by introjecting the external one, is the freedom that lives out its possibility fully. Possibility derives from lucidly and ethically assuming limits, not from fearfully and blindly obeying them.” (p.9-10)

One way to interpret Freire’s view is to say there is a need for conscionable authority in the classroom, a modeling authority that guides learners to inhabit their desire for freedom with a meaningful self-authority. So, objectives in a course, for example, needn’t be delivered in a way that requires obedience, the laying aside of authentic engagement; rather, learning objectives might reflexively invite learners to understand the objectives’ import, to verify that import against their own desires for their education, and against their own expectations of themselves, the classroom community, the teacher, the school, and the certification for which they are aiming.


What are other implications when we talk about authentic learning, about the role (and location—rhetorically, politically, physically) of the teacher in the classroom? If we are meant to both be conscionable authorities and also provide space for learners to enact their agency, what happens to our picture of the “teacher”, the “instructor”, the “educator”? What does our presence in the room, in the design of the learning space, in our interactions with learners and the spaces we create for those interactions actually look like?

How do we embody ourselves, in other words, within a space of digital learning?

In “On Pedagogical Manipulation“, Jesse Stommel writes:

“Over the years, I’ve tricked myself into being a person that can create a learning environment I admire (and one I’ve seen work), and it’s not unreasonable to say that I also trick students into learning. I do this by staunchly coming to class as a learner myself. This means assigning books/films I haven’t read, occasionally (and purposefully) under-preparing in the minutes just before class, asking questions that I actually want to know the answer to, turning questions back upon students, emoting visibly, etc. It’s a calculated genuineness, which may seem oxymoronic. What I’m doing is a sort of modeling.”

Jesse embodies himself, in other words, through a performance of the kind of learner he hopes students will be. It’s an affectation, to some degree, but one that sustains learning in the classroom, and for him in the process of his own teaching. This is a rhetorical presence, a constructed one, and a pedagogical one. But what about embodiment that isn’t performed?

Without question, our bodies and physicality play a role in an on-ground classroom. Standing just over six feet and broad-shouldered, for example, I have little trouble establishing both his presence and authority in a room. My usually broad gestures and pacing back and forth engage attention, and I present as someone comfortable in my embodiment. But this is not the same experience for every teacher.

At a recent Digital Pedagogy Lab event at the University of Delaware, I spoke to a graduate teacher whose upbringing in a Southern Baptist tradition sometimes leads her to present in her “preaching voice.” This is an authentic voice, and one that she’s very comfortable using; however, other teachers joke about it, or malign this aspect of her embodiment as un-academic. In digital spaces, she edits herself, creating a teacherly presence much more normative, almost unidentifiable as her.

Who are we behind our text? Who are we, even, when we create video lectures of ourselves? Who are we when we respond in a discussion? What level of authenticity, of embodiment, do we bring to our digital presence, and how do we bring it?

In “Johnny Mnemonic Meets the Bimbo,” her chapter in The Teacher’s Body: Embodiment, Authority, and Identity in the Academy, Diane Price Herndl reminds us of some of the challenges of teacherly embodiment:

“But when our daily routines include, for instance, running from outcomes assessment meetings to producing annual reports and confronting plagiarism and hostile senior colleagues within the hour, only to walk into a classroom the next hour to teach Last of the Mohicans followed by another class on Frankfurt School theories and feminism, to, perhaps, listening to a student in office hours explain that her paper will be late because she has been the victim of domestic violence, I wonder: Are our theories of resistant teaching not at odds with our everyday practices and our material conditions? I’m not raising these questions to complain or despair (much of the time I even like my job), but I want to use the congruence or conflict between our personal and professional lives to raise the question about the gap between theory and practice…” (60)

What do we bring with us into the classroom? What do we bring with us into instructional design? And what place does it have—and we believe it has a place—in our teaching, in learners’ learning?

And more: What experiences of embodiment do students bring into a learning space—whether on-ground, hybrid, or online? Are we not all always embodied, even when doing our work through digital means?

Time to Reflect