Last night I told an experienced and accomplished student named Gail that her drawing was finished. I had given the class an assignment to do a charcoal rub-out drawing that focused on capturing as many nuances of light and shadow on a portrait bust as possible. The woman turned to me and wearily said, “You think that this is finished? I thought the idea of this assignment was to extend the torture as long as possible.” The rest of the class laughed.
I’ve been thinking about my role as a teacher for the last few weeks, and if a student had said that to me ten days before I might have been appalled. I’ve become more and more aware in recent years that when I teach I inflict a certain amount of discomfort on my students. I challenge them to do things that stretch the limits of their talent and question their presuppositions about the nature of reality.
As Christa McAuliffe said, “I touch the future. I teach.” I go one step further: sometimes I make the future cry.
I’m not intentionally cruel, however. I am encouraging both when a student struggles or does well, but am firm about pointing out areas that could be improved. And I try to give them rational explanations and demonstrations to help them improve and fix things. I make my instruction as clear as possible, which can be difficult when teaching art. A nonverbal form of communication doesn’t lend itself easily to verbal instruction.
I’ve become aware, however, that I frequently hurt my students feelings when I tell them the truth about their progress, when I point out for the fiftieth time that their understanding of perspective is flawed (surfaces on an object do not appear to get bigger as they go farther away into the distance). I can actually feel their pain, and it dismays me.
Of course some of my students would snort with disbelief if they read that last statement. A percentage of them are sure that I come up with exercises with the sole intent of frustrating and annoying them. Some believe that I’m just a temporary road block and ignore my instruction while they look for a detour to an effortless passing grade. A growing number who have been raised on constant praise are offended when I don’t rubber stamp their self-evident brilliance. I’m less concerned about my impact on this crowd, and more concerned about the well being of students who are making a sincere effort.
I’m reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. It has helped me to accept the downside of teaching. The author claims that Lincoln grew as a writer, thinker, man of faith and politician every time he experienced a deep sorrow or stunning failure. Pain was his cruel but necessary teacher. Struggle, despair and strife pushed him toward greatness. I feel reassured that when I make my students uncomfortable I’m not being cruel–I’m creating an opportunity for them to find new resources and to grow.
I didn’t get upset last night when Gail made her joke at my expense. I pointed to Gail’s subtle and elegant drawing. I told her, “Yes, torture was a part of this assignment. But look at your drawing. It’s beautiful. You’ve captured the poetry of light.”