Class Notes

The Esthetics of Teaching

By Paula Marantz Cohen | January 3, 2012


Esthetics is not the first word that comes to mind when we think about teaching, unless the course deals directly with this subject. But there is an esthetics to teaching—or rather, to be effective, teachers must discover an esthetic to their method in order to make it work.

This came home to me recently in a discussion with my daughter, who is teaching high school chemistry and physics in southern Arkansas under the Teach for America program.

In the first few weeks of school, Kate called me every night in a near panic. She didn’t quite know if she was doing things right (perfectly natural for a first-year teacher), but, worse, she was concerned that she wasn’t getting any joy from teaching. As a tennis player, she had always known that to play well, she had to feel “joy”—an idea that had been drummed into her by her coach, and it seemed to make a lot of sense. Why play if you don’t love the game? But she couldn’t figure out how to find joy in the classroom. Science was not her favorite subject, though she had taken plenty of it in college; she volunteered to teach it because science teachers were needed, but she would have felt more at home in English or history. How was she to enjoy teaching something that wasn’t her passion in an environment that was new and intimidating?

One way she discovered was through using notebooks. She attended a professional workshop in which one of the speakers recommended this and the idea clicked for her. Not that the notebook approach was such a novelty or even such a good idea in itself, but it provided her with that elusive sense of joy.

The notebooks, as she explained them to me, were not only ways of organizing the material, both for her and for her students—they were esthetically pleasing. Every time she opened one and reviewed how she had organized the page and pasted in examples and notes, she felt a surge of pleasure, which she communicated to her students. Whether or not they liked the notebooks as much as she did, her esthetic helped frame the subject-matter and give it meaning and power.

I see this as a profound point and one that has to be taken into account when we think about the modern classroom. For many teachers, tools like Power Point and Blackboard are wonderful assets. For others, they are not. They are ugly. They deform the classroom esthetic. I don’t want to belabor this point—I realize that we can alter and amend our esthetic, and to treat technological innovation purely in esthetic terms is incorrect and limiting. Still, some older teachers have established a classroom esthetic that does not easily accommodate itself to radical change. To expect them to adopt some of the technological innovations pushed by educational consultants may extinguish that joy, fueled by esthetic pleasure, that makes them good teachers.

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