From the Director, Jesuit/Ignatian

Who We Are is How We Teach

by Gina Merys, Acting Director, Reinert Center

If students and subjects accounted for all the complexities of teaching, our standard ways of coping would do—keep up with our fields as best we can, and learn enough techniques to stay ahead of the student psyche. But there is another reason for these complexities: we teach who we are. Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul. If I am willing to look in that mirror, and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge—and knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject.

–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life

I am often asked to talk to individuals and groups of instructors on the topic of Ignatian pedagogy, the teaching framework created from the spiritual and educational lessons of St. Ignatius. When I engage in these discussions, I strive to invite instructors to explore the complexities and intertwining nature of the pedagogy—no one element of the framework works in isolation from the rest, just as, the pedagogy itself relies on its origins to be meaning-filled. Thus, while discussing the elements of the Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm (context, experience, reflection, action, evaluation), we take into account the three main aspects of teaching a course—the content, the students, and the instructor. As with Palmer’s words above, it is only when we have an understanding of who we are as humans in the world, and how our identity shapes everything we do, can we begin to approach the very human tasks of teaching and learning.

As we head into the spring semester, I encourage us all to consider again who we are as humans, and how that affects who we are as teachers and scholars. How do our identities and condition of our beings shape the ways we approach the content and skills of our disciplines? How do they shape the ways we engage with course design and planning, risk taking and content coverage? How do our identities or beings color our expectations of student learning and engagement? How do they prevent and encourage student relationships with our disciplines and with learning, with failure and with success?

In other words, what are the choices we are making and the choices we are abdicating within each of the elements of the paradigm because of who we are and how we are?

What better time than the start of the spring semester, a semester that opens in the cold of winter and commences in the heat that leads to summer, a semester that begins on the heels of hopeful resolutions made for the new year, to acknowledge our own place as instructors in creating opportunities for students to learn.