Teaching as Creative Process

“You teach?”

“I teach. Computer Age Philosophy…”

-Jonathan Larson, Rent

I tend to think of myself as a late bloomer. No, that’s not accurate. Let’s put it this way, instead: I have a lot of different interests, and I’ve always been this way. Growing up, I considered many career options as a result. First there was my archaeologist phase, in no small part inspired by the Indiana Jones movies and a fascination with ancient Egypt (which my dad happily helped foster). For a long time, there was also the doctor phase (pediatric plastic surgeon, pediatric neurosurgeon). And of course, I can’t leave out the time when I was going to get a degree in international business (for the traveling), and also own my own martial arts studio.

Teaching never crossed my mind, even when I figured out at age 20 that I wanted to get a PhD. Even then, I wanted the degree because I saw it as a personal milestone. I wanted it for the research and for the writing, and possibly also because it was a way to get to spend years reading books.

The closest I came to thinking about teaching was in my freshman year of college. My roommate was an education major, and for a few weeks, I thought about whether I should go that route. I even talked to someone in the School of Education and floated the idea with my advisor (who had no idea who I was: I was a freshman and the school was enormous). I remember that I decided not to pursue it in part because I’d have to do student teaching eventually, and I couldn’t imagine how in the world I would be able to do so many hours in the classroom when I needed to work just as many hours at a job to make money for school. Who had that kind of financial aid package?

Fast forward nearly two decades, and despite all of the above, I’ve found myself happily ensconced in a classroom. (And I got the PhD!) There are many stories to tell about my career and my career path, but today the one I want to tell is more of a love letter to my chosen profession than anything else. At this moment, I’m in the midst of a school year that has been in some ways more chaotic and challenging than most, and I’m about to walk into conferences this week. Conferences are always intense, and by the end of the week what you want most is to snuggle up in a quiet spot with a good book or movie and just escape from the world for a little bit before you do it all again.

Even acknowledging all that, I just can’t get enough of teaching.

This fall, I still haven’t figured out a writing rhythm, but I’m starting to understand the ways in which teaching enables me to embrace my creativity on a daily basis.

I’ve never dressed up as a historical figure, but I confess I have taught as Tonks from Harry Potter and as Mary Poppins.

Teaching is an act of creation and re-creation, or as TS Eliot writes, it’s time “for a hundred visions and revisions.” As the summer ends each year, I sit down with my old lesson plans and re-imagine how a course will look. This year, with a new course, I also get to explore how to do something new. On my own, I make new plans, shifting things here, adding something there.

Before the class session, the plans come out again, and in those moments, now that I know my students and know the course, and have a chance to re-visit the readings – there’s a chance to be creative again. All of a sudden, in the final day – or sometimes the final minutes – before you execute a lesson plan, new possibilities emerge. One minute, you might be planning to have the students read a document in class; the next, you’ve found an activity that gives students half a Confucian saying and makes them work with their classmates to find the missing part and translate it into modern language.

Classroom inspiration: not just for students!

On the really good days, the creativity comes in the collaboration. Your colleague mentions their plans to do this activity with the materials we’re using, and you realize just how amazing that sounds. Or, when you’re stuck, you run across the hall five minutes before class to find out how your colleague managed their last period – what worked for her? What should you try next? Or even better, you get the chance to sit down with a student to go through their writing to discuss what’s working and what’s not and to strategize how they can improve. In those moments, when you get to geek out on writing, things get awesome.

But the best moments, they come when the students join in on the fun. I begin every day with the premise that we only study interesting things. Some days, the students buy in to this. At times, it can be a harder sell. It’s true, though: I remain convinced that anything we study in the classroom is interesting, and my goal is to have fun with it. If I’m not having fun, how can anyone else enjoy what they’re learning?

As I’ve struggled to make time for my writing in the past month, I’ve increasingly begun to value the ways in which teaching enables me to embrace my creative side.  This is important to me right now, because even though I may be missing the formal sit-down writing time, I know that I’m engaging in creative pursuits and I’m enjoying myself (even despite the stressful moments).

In the weeks ahead, my students and I get to explore everything from World War 2 and the Cold War to what makes an empire and the rise and fall of Rome. Together, we get to create and recreate stories as my students add this knowledge to their own lives. As they learn, they become part of the shared history we all have, and all of us – me and them – get the chance to think about our place in this history and future. What could be better than that?



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