Teaching as co-creation

I love teaching. Give me an audience, and I move to a different state. Suddenly, I’m at home in the universe. I love waking up with the feeling that a group of avid students is awaiting me in some room somewhere. I relish the first question they’ll ask from me, the moment when they’ll discover something new, the instance where the eye of someone in the back row will light up. I may have had only a few hours of sleep, but I’ll always find the energy to teach. I’m not very good with pain overall, but I can teach with the flu, a broken foot, or a kidney stone. There’s an extraordinary clarity of mind that sets in when the audience engages with me: suddenly, I’m in the zone. I may struggle to remember my nephews’ and nieces’ names at home, but I can learn and remember the names of 30 previously unknown people in a classroom after only a few minutes. After most sessions, I feel drained and fulfilled, knowing I have given my all and people have responded. I imagine this is the way athletes feel after a good game. There’s a river flowing in me, bringing me peace and joy.

So what is it about the experience of teaching that produces this inner happiness for me? Cynics will argue that I’m well paid to do what I do, so I’m simply enjoying the economic benefit associated with teaching. This is undeniably part of it, but I make as much money doing other things and they do not take me to the same emotional state. Others say it is the pleasure of being a performer receiving the ego gratification granted by people expressing respect for my craft. And yes, ego is also part of it, since teaching is the closest I will ever get to fulfilling my fantasy of being part of a rock band.

But there’s more to it than that. What I truly love about teaching is the connection it creates. Teaching is less about me than it is about interacting with others. When I’m in a classroom, the energy that flows in me comes from others. The reason I light up like a bulb is that I am a bulb, powered by the energy of others. In the classroom, I am connected with an entire energy system, and together, we light up the whole room. I cannot create this energy by myself. My power comes from the interaction I am allowed to establish with others.

At the risk of stretching the concept of interaction, I also interact with a more indirect set of protagonists when I teach: the members of my family who have preceded me in this noble craft. Both my parents were high school teachers. My brother is a university teacher. There’s even a grandmother I never knew who taught grade school in a small village in eastern France, who has left a moving legacy in the form of a letter where she instructs her daughter, my mother, on how to teach the imperative tense in French, complete with a description of how to involve students in the lesson. I sometimes feel the presence of this grandmother in the classroom with me, smiling in the back.

When a session is going really well, I know the audience is having as much fun as I am. I can see them smile. I get lots of questions. People take the material and start explaining it to each other. Their experience and my experience are deeply correlated. This is unfortunately also true when the session is a bad one. If I die on stage, the experience is painful for the audience, both because I bore them to death and because they feel my pain in failing to teach them something useful.

Teaching is co-creation. It involves creating a unique experience for two parties: the audience and me. Good teaching involves using an engagement platform: the classroom, some agenda structure I may bring, and some content. And then it’s up to the two parties to devise a unique interaction between them. Every now and then, I lapse into process teaching and start delivering a packaged experience to the audience, which may still be gratifying for my ego, but frustrating for the audience.

Tonight is a teaching session in Raleigh. Tomorrow is Boston. Friday is Chicago. I hope they come fired up. I’m counting on this co-creation teaching thing to keep me eternally young.

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