The Syndrome

The Syndrome

Gary Poole
1994 3M Teaching Fellow

am a compulsive teacher. This might sound admirable, but it has its pros and cons. For example, if I am visiting a totally unfamiliar city and am approached by someone for directions, I will take out my map and direct the person. I don’t even want to think about some of the places I have sent people.

On the positive side, I have infinite patience as a teacher. When working with students, I can virtually guarantee that their patience will run out before mine does. In fact, I have made that promise to students.

This might be all fine and noble, but my compulsiveness has made it difficult at times for me to simply get out of the way and let people learn. Phrases like “Let me explain” or “Let me show you how to do that” can be the bane of my teaching existence.

People have let me be a compulsive teacher. Like being with a compulsive dishwasher, no one complains. Indeed, students have enabled my compulsion. They have thanked me for my explanations and demonstrations. They have returned for more of them, or for the same ones repeated because they were so passive the first time they didn’t actually learn anything. Because of this, when I have taught large classes, there has been a line of students outside my door during office hours. Colleagues were impressed. People were happy.

I was jarred out of this educational euphoria when I was introduced to the concepts of transformative learning. Ironically, it was a student who made the introduction. During a directed studies course, she brought in the work of Jack Mezirow. Most specifically, I was very taken by a 2 x 2 table that combines challenge and support. The theoretical claim is that the optimal combination for learning and growth is high challenge and high support. My compulsiveness ensured that I was providing high levels of support, but was I providing the challenge? According to transformative theory, high support and low challenge yields dependence. This was the last thing I wanted to engender in my students.

Clearly, I had to make changes or accept the reality that I was satisfying my teaching compulsion without optimizing student learning. So now I have a life project. I ask more questions, I tolerate silence better, I pontificate less. As anyone who has tried to control a compulsion will tell you, it takes time. But I’m getting there. However, if you see me walking down a street carrying a map, don’t ask me for directions.