What kind of teacher am I?
I have been thinking for a long time about what it is that I do as a teacher. Since I have taken what might be called a “non-traditional” route within the pedagogical world, I find myself thinking about how to explain to the people I meet the nature of my vocation.
How do I see myself? And what does it mean to be a teacher whose classroom is an office space in his house, the living room of a student’s home or even sits within a clutch of books carried around in his satchel? It certainly does not resemble the traditional institutional world I come out of: a world of hi-tech classrooms, large modern campuses and highly formalized curricular models. I have elected not to pursue that familiar pathway because I feel that my ideas and instincts, my pedagogical methods and my views on hierarchy and educational democracy do not quite fit within that institutional context. Instead, I see myself as part of a line of educators which includes reformers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, Jonathan Kozol and Paul Goodman. I offer this admission not as an implied condemnation of traditional schooling but to help sketch out just how I am looking for a different forum in which to teach and to be taught.
I would like to begin by clarifying something: I am not, strictly speaking, a tutor in the familiar sense of the word. I advertise and offer tutoring services and enjoy helping students improve upon their critical thinking and formal writing skills but I do not think of myself as being primarily a “supplemental” educator, a term implied by the word “tutor,” at least in our North American context.
When I founded DEMOI Independent Learning in April 2013 I originally advertised myself as a tutor in the Oxford University sense: I am someone who works with students to design a rigorous course of independent study and then meets weekly (or multiple times per week) with each student to discuss their reading, writing and what they are thinking about in response to the work. I think the Oxford Tutor model is an excellent one because it affords the teacher and the student the opportunity of designing a course and then assigns both the responsibility of steering that course. I like to think that what I have done is taken this model and adapted it to the home schooling/un-schooling model of pedagogy by making it primarily a project of informal independent study. I have found this to be a tremendously stimulating experience because neither my students nor I can ever predict precisely where our work together will go. There is a spirit of adventure to our endeavours and I believe that the educational experience we share is truly a mutual one.
I will explore this concept of mutuality in a subsequent essay but for the moment I would like to pause over what precisely it is that students and I do together in our one-on-one “Oxford-style” sessions.
I think that the greatest gift independent study has to offer people of all ages is the ability to concentrate on a chosen field of interest. Too often we are told that we cannot just jump into a new field of study because we lack the requisite training or have not taken the proper “prerequisites.” I have encountered this mindset in graduate school and it succeeded in denying me the opportunity to study advanced topics that truly inspired me. In order to avoid this mistake with my students I encourage them to challenge themselves and tackle material that might seem, at first, to be a little “too advanced” to some. The material that we select is based upon their chosen topic. For example, this past summer I read The Iliad with an eleven year old student because it interested her and she wanted the challenge. It was a great experience. I also have taught a European history class to a group of 12 and 13 year olds using a university-level textbook. The reason I think this can be done is twofold: if someone shows an interest in a subject then I think this is an indicator that they are actually prepared to undertake it. Also, because I do not believe in grades or tests I am not worried about having my students pass rigorous examinations designed to determine whether they have truly “mastered” the material. (Mastery is another subject worthy of a future essay.) I do not think that “mastery” is necessary unless a student decides to pursue a professional career where specific forms of credentialing and testing require that they demonstrate quite specific skills in order to receive certification. And even there, we could have a fun debate about where and when credentialing is appropriate and why.
I will be exploring many of the ideas mentioned above in subsequent essays. My website is now in its final stages of development and when it appears it will contain a blog in which I regularly discuss the work that I am doing in the pedagogical field and what my students and I are currently up to.
Thank you for reading.
–Jeremy Nathan Marks