Recently in Why the Chicken Crossed the Road, I was reading this story about a student who wanted to be taught the Iron Shirt Exercises. There are a series of exercises used to allow the body’s natural energy to support its structural strength. Dean Sluyter wrote, "There's a story in Chinese martial-arts tradition about a young man who begs a great Kung-fu master to teach him the Iron Shirt exercises, an esoteric system reputed to make the muscles and organs so strong that they are impervious to blows. The master at first refuses, but finally sets him a kung (a formidable challenge). Pointing to a thick tree, he says, "Pull up that tree and bring it to me; then I'll teach you Iron Shirt." After months of futile tugging, the student notices that he can get better leverage if he keeps his back straight. With further experimentation he finds the optimal way to plant his feet. He works on, incrementally adjusting the way he hugs the tree, the way he breathes, the way he visualizes the task. After four years the tree starts to give. Finally he uproots it and lays it at the master's feet, demanding, 'Now teach me Iron Shirt!' 'Now I don't have to,' the master replies. 'You've just learned it.' "
There are lessons we learn in life which we learn quickly. There are also lessons that cannot be learned quickly, they are lessons like learning to pull up this tree, that are learned over the long haul. One of the lessons I have learned in life is that there is always more to a job then is written in the job description. The job description can tell you what you are supposed to be doing, but what you actually wind up doing is far more complex then that. I have been working as an adjunct professor for 20 years now and my job description is simple. I teach the two classes assigned to me each semester and offer office hours to my students where they can access me.
What I have learned over the long haul is that there is far more to teaching then just trying to teach material. It is about building relationships with my students and getting to know them. It is about remembering that what my students think about me as a professor is about them. At the same time, what they think about me has an affect on other things which effect me and the department. I have learned that how I want to teach and how I am able to teach is to some extent shaped by what is happening globally in terms of views on higher education. I have learned that for my students I am sometimes teacher, counselor, advisor, and mentor. I have learned how to change the structure of my classroom so that we are both pecking away at the material and learning and growing as a team.
I have learned to remember that my students are people first and need to be treated with dignity and respect. They have been and are going through other things in their life then just going to school. This semester alone, my students have had fires in their homes, lost mothers, fathers, children, and husbands. They have moved, lost jobs, gotten promotions, and stressed about whether or not they were going to graduate. While it is not my job to remember all this, I would not be who I am if I did not and I try to keep these things in mind as I move throughout the semester
I could go on and on about what I have learned over the last 20 years, but the point is this. There are somethings we cannot learn in the moment. Some things are taught to us over time. Often times, like the student who struggled to pull up the tree, we do not realize how much we have learned and taught ourselves until we step back and think about it