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Zen and the Art of Digital Maintenance

Written by Steve Moore
March 02, 2011

When I was hired for my first job as a reading teacher, I was endowed with the blessing of a filing cabinet full of resources from a decade of courses past. My predecessor, a wonderful teacher whom I still call friend, is a total type-A hoarder. Not only did she keep what appeared to be everything she’d ever used, but she had ten years of day-by-day planners to give to me too. I was excited to receive such a gift, but…

It was a little overwhelming.

On any given day, my teaching, tweeting, and thinking resembled a similar pattern. I did a lot of the things I thought new teachers needed to do to survive, like put a coffee pot in my room, my kitchen at home, and bought a bigger thermos to hold the coffee I planned to drink in the car.

After I had that covered, I thought, “now at least I have coffee.”

My attitude about coffee was very connected with how I went about my day. The more coffee I drank, the more jittery I got and the less I spent time eating (or sitting). It wasn’t a cycle that made me a more effective teacher, or a calmer person. I think there are some negative stereotypes about social media which follow a similar pattern.

     Voice One: If you are online too much, you’ll never get anything done!

     Voice Two: If I’m not online, I can’t get anything done!

The kind of absolute thinking that drives unhealthy overuse of something like coffee or Facebook is something you need to consider. You can waste a lot of time reading things to help your teaching online, but if you don’t balance that very valid study and reflection time with practice in the classroom, you’ll end up with a big pile of resources but no idea how to put them into action. You’ll end up with your own file cabinet full of potentially wonderful things, but there will be no connection of theory to practice.

There were days while I was a substitute in a computer lab that I was able to immerse myself in reading about education for hours. When I only had to respond to student questions about how to log-in, find a research database, or the occasional query about whether they should use “affect” or “effect,” I could devote a lot of time to myself.

The time I spent independently studying was valuable, but I know there were days I’d spend in a coffee shop reading, linking, and tweeting, and not accomplish anything you could see in my classroom. When I started to notice that, I wrote about it. That metacognitive process led me to seek out a better balance of theory and practice, of digital and acoustic learning.

The high of finding “great stuff” online, giving and receiving comments and retweets, and crafting really great hypertext would fade quickly if I didn’t consider my students. Each day of my first year of teaching, I tried to make my students my priority. The students in the room, the halls, and everywhere else were THE reason I taught. I did well when I remembered that fact.

Each day, I had to challenge myself to find reasons in my students to do what I did online; applying that practice consciously helped start what Robert M. Pirsig referred to as a “wave of crystallization” in his book Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance.

What blogging allowed me to do during my first year was understand that I have a lot to tweak in any given lesson or day, but that’s okay. I discovered that I can’t make myself a perfect teacher, there is no such thing. Teachers don’t have a magic process to go back and edit their actions, but they do have social reflection.

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