I never know when the various ways I monitor conversations in cyberspace will result in coming across ideas that hit hard and linger in my mind. It happened just this morning when Louis Schmier shared a post on the POD listserv (Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education). Louis writes a blog reflecting on his role as professor, and his post talked about what it means to be a teacher at the deepest level.
It got me thinking about my own role as a “learning professional’s learning professional” – my role as professor, instructor, teacher, and coach to other learning professionals, to subject matter experts who find themselves acting as trainers, and to new faculty members who want to be impactful facilitators of student learning.
What do gravitational fields have to do with it?
I imagine my influence as something like a planetary gravitational field. One way a gravitational field works is to capture the objects that pass by – to hook and hold those objects to an orbit that circles around the planet. Or a gravitational field can pull an object in completely, make it crash into the planet’s surface and become a part of the planet itself.
But there’s another action that gravitational fields can perform – an action that NASA knows well – a gravitational field can serve as an accelerator and steering mechanism for objects passing by. In this case, the object is not captured; it is given extra energy and set off at a faster pace in a slightly different direction than it would have been on if it hadn’t brushed by the planet at all.
I’m pretty proud of my gravitational field – I get encouraging feedback that I have a lot to offer to the professionals around me.
But here’s my a-ha moment of the day: I am not supposed to capture the people who pass through my field; they are not supposed to hang by me and follow my same path. No. The role of my gravitational field is to fling people further and faster into the universe – to accelerate the path they are on to the place they are supposed to be.
I have encountered the gravitational fields of other professionals – fields that accelerated my own development and pushed me off in new directions. I know that pull and the exhilaration of being whipped away – free to continue my own path. I need to remember that feeling and try to engender that feeling in those who encounter me.
Oh, how hard it can be to let go of people, to not try to force them to take my path! A colleague from my recent past yet serves as my constant reminder that everyone is not on the same path I am, and that I need to respect and encourage them on the path they want to take. Remembering Carrie’s advice always makes me stop and think about the learners, their goals, their needs, and their perspectives. She reminds me that learning professionals come in many shapes and have differing goals and dreams. It’s an important reminder.
Using my gravitational field
In order to use my gravitational field wisely, I need to have a clear understanding of the path my students, participants, and coachees are on. It’s not my job to change that path, although that is always a possibility. It definitely isn’t my job to force them to follow my path. As people come into my field, I need to first understand the place they want to be – perhaps have a conversation about varied possibilities – so that I can use my field to accelerate them toward their goals. I want them to feel they have better direction and more confidence having encountered my field – not to feel wobbly, bruised, and unsure of where they are headed, glad to have escaped to be out on their own again.
These a-ha’s and jolting reminders are timely as I am in the midst of preparing a number of formal courses – a graduate class on adult learning and a “jump start” series for those new to training or teaching.
I think my aspiration for my gravitational field means that I need to do more listening than teaching, more helping the people I encounter to identify their path and chart their own course. I need to ask questions and encourage deep reflection and decision-making. To launch and guide others on a path of their choosing, I have to be more attentive to the ways that the knowledge and skill I “teach” can be applied on those paths. It’s a difficult aspiration, but I need to consider how I can help students to personalize and customize how they use the knowledge and skill I offer while they are in a class with others on differing paths.
At the same time, I don’t want my gravitational field to be wimpy. I want my students and participants and coachees to really feel it – to be challenged and pushed. That means asking HARD questions, pointing out different, more enticing directions, and providing exercises and practice that propel and energize.
I am reminded that teaching isn’t about force-feeding information and requiring task completion. It’s about empowering deeper exploration and emboldening innovative action. I’ll be challenging myself to tune my force field as I work on those courses in the coming weeks.