Teaching and Not Knowing

As I contemplate the challenge of transforming education in America, I am struck by the enormous obstacle presented by the “training of teachers.” My opinion, which I offer as an outsider, is based on my experience in social work and Zen training, — two experiences quite different from each other and very different from teacher training.

Maybe I should be talking about teacher socialization rather than teacher training. 

Teacher socialization begins not in teacher training. Rather, it begins for all teachers, as pupils themselves in elementary school and continues through high school and on into college. Long before a teacher gets in front of a class as a professional, the key elements of their socialization are already 20 years old. Consciously or unconsciously, most teachers are teaching from the models they learned as students. 

For most people who become teachers, their experience as students was positive. The school was a place in which they thrived. Schools are a place they like to be. There are exceptions to this. There are some teachers who were “terrible” students, who turn to teach with a passion to ensure no other students suffer in school the way they did. 

This is a shaping distinction. Most teachers, at a gut-level, are not school reformers. At the gut level, they are nostalgic, educational conservatives in their bones. They are likely to bemoan the new generation of students and parents. “Education was easier in our day.” At least for some people.

Do race and poverty make a difference in this? Very likely. But the majority of teachers are white and grew up in relative economic privilege like college students generally. Schooling worked for them.

That’s where teaching likely begins. 

To make matters worse, teacher training is not a transformational practice. In saying this, I am contrasting my own experience in social work training. My own nostalgia.

In my day in social work school — is this still the case today? — the central element of social work education was fieldwork, the 3-day a week internship in a social work practice setting where we practiced under the supervision of an experienced field work supervisor. At the heart of fieldwork, learning was the process of recording. As students, we would write three process recordings a week, every week for two years. We wrote from memory, attempting to produce a verbatim record of a session or meeting with an individual or family or small group, or a committee or organizational meeting. And meeting weekly, individually with our field instructors, we would review this process recording in minute detail.

“Why did we say or do what we did or didn’t do?”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

“Why did you do what you did?”

“What did you think/hope would happen as a result of your action (or lack of action)?”

“Did it work?”

“What did you learn from this?”

This field learning experience was a kind of schooling with which most of us were completely unfamiliar. All of this was pushing us to look inward, to reflect, to change ourselves. Social work practice, we were learning, was all about the “conscious use of self.” We were learning to use ourselves as an instrument of change, of care, of help. Years later, I would recognize the affinity of this training with Dogen Zenji’s prescription for Zen practice, to study the self as the way to enlightenment.

This field learning went on in parallel with course work where we were being taught “social work theory” as well as the key elements of the behavioral sciences in which social work theory and research are rooted. This course work was very much the kind of education that we had experienced throughout all our prior schooling.

As our theoretical knowledge grew, we were challenged to bring this to our practice, to our process recording, and our reflection. When asked why we did what we did to ground our why’s in the theory we were learning in class.   Unlearning and learning were going on simultaneously. The unlearning was the most exhilarating part. And the most crucial. In looking at our practice process, we were brought face-to-face with ourselves. It freed us to use what we were learning in a very different way.

Social work school was not a great experience for everyone. We knew there were “bad placements” and “bad supervisors”. But for most of us, the experience was transformational.


A Social Work Koan

The teacher asked me why I didn’t ask the young person I was meeting with if he had ever done anything to harm himself. Had he ever thought of hurting himself? Those kinds of questions. 

“No,” I answer, “I didn’t want to put the idea of suicide in his head.”

The teacher answers, “No one has ever killed themselves because of something a social work student said. You are not so important.”

His response, which reverberates as vividly today as it did 50 years ago, was not about interviewing skills or about technique. It pulled the rug from under me, shook my grandiosity, shifted my sense of what it meant to be a social worker.

I can’t say that I was greatly enlightened but I think I caught a glimpse.


The other great element in shaping my opinions about teaching is my experience as a Zen student and teacher which contrasts so sharply with my brief (four years) experience as a college professor.

In the traditional view of teaching, the teacher teaches the student stuff that the teacher knows. When the teacher asks a question, the teacher knows the answer, knows what they are looking for, “the right answer.” When the Zen teacher asks a question, the teacher does not know the answer.

As a Zen teacher, I don’t have what the student needs. The student already has what she needs. She just doesn’t know it yet.

What I can share is my journey. More precisely, a story of my journey, not as a pathway that anyone else can follow but as a source perhaps of encouragement or inspiration. I do not have a map of the future. I have a map of the past.

“These were my stumbles. You will have your own. The journey, unique for each of us, is wonderful. It is a privilege for me to share your journey.”

Sometimes I want to shout at traditional teachers (a Zen shout not in anger, a startle), “Never ask a question you know the answer to.”

The challenge is to keep remembering that I don’t know.

Bernie’s refrain in the last years of his life, “It’s just my opinion, Man,” continues to echo, a reminder.

What I can tell you is my experience, a story of my past. Remember, it’s just my story, one among many. History is always a story, being told and retold. “Authoritative” biographies are an illusion. No story is told once and for all.

And change is constant. Efforts to repeat the past are doomed. You can learn more from my mistakes than from my successes. What worked in the past will most likely never work again in the same way.

This is important to remember when we talk about replicating successful charter schools. This is the challenge of fidelity in replication. What does it mean to be true to a model in a changing world? In attempting to replicate a successful school, we are often imaging that we can repeat a past success. But acting in a never moment, in a different place and time, the past is gone. Seeking to replicate in a different community with different structures, different resources, different challenges, at a different moment in time — the past will not come again.

On a micro level, this is true of classroom instruction as well. The same lesson, the wonderfully successful lesson that we taught last year or even last period can never be taught again. The moment is gone. And most obviously the kids are different. No two classes are the same. Each student is unique. Each mix of students is unique. Even the teacher has changed. In repeating the lesson, the moment of discovery has passed.

Zen students fall into this trap again and again. We have all been warned and we all must learn for ourselves. We experience a glimpse of nothingness, or however, we describe it, as we sit on our cushions. Wonderful. And then we try to recapture it. It is hard to accept that the moment is gone. It lives only as a memory, as a story, even a great story. The beauty of life and teaching is to keep going forward in the present moment, learning.