Something that has hooked me in to teaching are the “a-ha” moments where the proverbial light-bulb goes off and new information strikes a chord between teacher and learner. On a really good day, these lightbulb moments are bidirectional, and we both learn something new from each other during the process.
I can pretty clearly remember the light-bulb moments that drew me into teaching. In my first post-MSW job as a social worker in a long-term care facility, one of my duties was to give the annual “residents rights” in-service where my goal was impressing the importance of dignity and quality of life concerns onto staff of all classifications. I decided to go with experiential learning, and each person was assigned a resident or staff role to engage in “simple” tasks…putting on a sweater with only one hand, being fed jello by someone else while you were blindfolded and didn’t know what was being fed to you, having to walk across the room using a walker and wearing glasses that simulated blurred vision, having to sit the length of a 30 minute in service wearing a waist restraint, or sitting on a big “chucks” pad that crinkled with every motion. I would watch people come in, arms folded and highly annoyed at forced participation. Eventually, pressing through the discomfort, a lightbulb would go off. The words, “dignity” and “empathy” took on real meaning. Big, burly maintenance men would have a light bulb moment and talk about how they might interact differently with the elder woman slowly walking in her walker around the building, and nursing assistants would recall that food doesn’t seem tasteful or texturally appealing if you don’t know what it is. I also learned from my participants who inspired them, and how they had come to want to work in this environment. We all learned, and I felt energized and inspired after each session.
A few years later, I was asked to guest lecture for a college class (“Human Services with Older Adults”) about long-term care. The person teaching that class at a local college was a colleague I had gotten to know at Meals on Wheels, where I referred some of our residents who were able to be discharged back to the community. I vividly remember a class of people who all were thinking, “I never want to live in a Nursing Home” slowly transforming during the realization that no one ever wants to live in a nursing home, so the real biopsychosocialspiritual challenge of human service work with that population is to work together to deliberately create moments of choice, hope, and dignity. I remember going home after that lecture energized, and making a New Years resolution to teach more.
Whether by coincidence or divine serendipity, my colleague was unable to teach the next semester, and I was the one he recommended to take over the class at the last minute. After the first semester of trial-by-fire teaching, I spent five years as an adjunct faculty member at that college before deciding (and being strongly encouraged by my department chair) to enter a PhD program and make a career of academic teaching and scholarship. Being in the classroom as an instructor was as full of lightbulb moments for me, not just for my students.
It helps me to remember these moments that drew me into teaching. Like anything, it can become rote after doing it for a while which is why I try to change up my teaching schedule routinely. I am presently working mostly in administration and research, so my teaching has been less frequent and more concentrated at the doctoral level. I still enjoy it, but I admittedly miss the lightbulb moments of those new to higher education or exposure to brand new information. I seek out those opportunities, and they find me. Yesterday, the light of learning found me in while giving Grand Rounds at a local hospital. I was summarizing everything I knew about perinatal depression in 45 minutes or less to a mixed group of specialty physicians, nurses, and a few social workers. I realized when the Chief of Staff introduced me as an expert in an area that, by training, he knew nothing about that the lightbulb opportunities were exactly the same in this highly educated group as they were in my first in-service trainings. I found that light going off as I spoke about research intersecting with humanness, bringing my story and my own professional training into the room for them along with my facts and data. At the end, we actively brainstormed ways for their specialty roles to complement each other’s knowledge. The room was alive with the light of learning.
Seeing the Light has a spiritual connotation, and learning has an intellectual connotation. But in my experience, teaching and learning are activities of mind and of spirit. Openness to this connection ignites a spark in my own spirit and reminds me that there a greater Presence working the room, allowing us all to See the Light of learning in our work together.