Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Fine Balance: "Sis Boom Ba!"/"You Shall Not Pass!"

A pair of favorite similes about teachers comes from an article I read many years ago. Unfortunately, I can't remember the title, who wrote it, or where I read it. Mabye it was from a lecture. I probably have gotten the analogy mixed up. But my (false?) memory of the similes remains with me, reminding me of the flexibility effective teachers practice and the contradictory habits of mind we embrace. Here goes: 

A teacher is both a cheerleader and a gatekeeper. As a cheerleader, a good teacher is on the sidelines, encouraging students to give it all they've got. A cheerleader believes in the players, wanting each team member to succeed. So the cheerleader shouts, dances, and chants his support to help players/students stay pumped up, to help them believe in themselves. The players, not the game, is the cheerleader's priority.

A gatekeeper, on the other hand, is more concerned with standards. She protects the "discipline", determining who has mastered the content and skills of the particular field she is entrusted to safeguard. For the gatekeeper, maintaining the integrity of the disciplinary field ranks higher than the does any player's esteem or self-worth. My "field" is English, and I remember how my best teachers held super high standards, as they guarded the portals to the next level. Aren't the dreaded oral exams an intellectual manifestation of a gate? Think of Heimdall fiercely guarding the rainbow portal to Asgard. 

Yet my gate keepers also encouraged me - my own personal pep squad! My best teachers did both. 

Somehow (magically?), an effective teacher toggles back and forth between these often paradoxical roles: sometimes playing the cheerleader, others, the gatekeeper. Often within the space of a single heartbeat! Metaphorically we do the splits, execute complex tumbling runs and human pyramids, and cheer at the top of our lungs to encourage our students. At the same time, we are expected to maintain and enforce agreed upon standards. We must ensure that the students who pass through our classes have learned what they need to succeed at the next level. As gatekeepers, we "love" and protect our fields, just as my favorite professors did.  


The balance isn't a transcendent ratio, a stable fraction, or even some alchemical miracle. Rather, the balance between playing cheerleader and gatekeeper is dynamic, shifting and evolving with (and even within!) every class and for each student.  This half-remembered analogy helps me approach my profession, to be tactical about my technique.

If you remember reading this article, I'd appreciate the  reference. It'll be fun to read it after all these years. I wonder how far the interpretation I remember today veers from the author's original intent and meaning.