The Classroom as Big Sur

Fall 2013

By Ralph Sneeden

One of my favorite musicians, the quirky and eclectic jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, came out with a new album this past June, and in the months before the release my aesthetic antennae were quivering with the prospect of how an artist I admired so much would transform himself this time.

He has been on my radar since the late 1970s, and as each of his bands took shape and evaporated, and Frisell's musical vision veered and looped through hybridized genres and decades, I came to expect new worlds and textures from his art, though I knew I'd always be able to recognize the voice of his instrument, his lyric signature. This got me to consider the paradox at work in our evolution as educators: how it's possible to grow and change, to avoid hammering the same notes and riffs, while retaining the essence of what makes us who we are in the classroom. How, I thought, can Frisell, a guy now in his early 60s, possess such fresh and generative ambition?

Identifying the forces that change us professionally and artistically (teaching is an art, after all) — those that we seek actively and those that find us, uncannily — has been on my mind during the past two years because I've taken on a new administrative job at my current school after almost 30 years of teaching English: continuing professional development coordinator.

Over the years, after my experience with three graduate programs (English, education, and writing), my understanding and use of professional development resources have always focused on the secular venues that fuel scholarship or my writing career, mostly poetry. Securing physical sanctuaries for working on new material has led me from the straight-up, do-it-yourself rental of a three-season cottage on the edge of a fisher-cat infested meadow in central Maine to a more formal — and decidedly more pampered — residency at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I've also been lucky enough to receive foundation grants that allowed me to merge "field work" for an essay on the childhood landscapes of two of my favorite poets, Wordsworth and Montale. I remember unpacking my bag in Cockermouth, England, so that I could dry my clothes, still damp from the Ligurian Sea and sweat from hiking the trails along the olive groves above Monterosso, Italy. Some of my colleagues were skeptical about this allegedly intellectual adventure and wondered whether it was really the works of a Romantic or hermeneutic poet that drew me to the depraved landscapes of the Lake District and Cinque Terre. But as we all know, theoretically, anything that we do (surfing, growing orchids, etc.), if it revitalizes the spirit or body, has the capacity to be touted as PD. Of course we'll be better teachers for it.

On one thread of a sabbatical a few years ago, I flew to Los Angeles on the wings of my school's charity (see: time and money) to do some groundwork on a piece I wanted to write about the city where I was born, accompanied by a photographer colleague who was working on a book about vintage neon signs, and who knew a lot more about the city than I did. Writers and artists have a pre-fab legitimacy hardwired to their proposals: no matter how vacationy the destination, they can write about or take pictures of it. The committee charged with yaying or naying the excursion dubbed it "The Endless Summer" or "Easy Rider" project, and shot it down on the first go. We never considered how it would come off to a group whose members might not share our passions and for whom the Golden State might seem the bastion of slackerdom. But it passed, eventually, with some fleshing-out of the original proposal and the encouragement of the incumbent art-sympathetic dean of faculty. I still felt a little paranoid, however. Was I a slacker? Just another hog shouldering at the trough? I knew I'd probably wring more than a few pages of reflection out of my family's 1950s–60s stint in the San Fernando Valley before heading back to New Hampshire, but was it really going to make me a better teacher?

Well, I couldn't have predicted it would be the germ for an entire book manuscript of personal essays on water and coasts. Or, that I would also fly home with a mental carry-on of texts that would become the syllabus for my elective on the literature of California, an idea which actually came to me while steeping in the scent of strangers' removed shoes in the security line at LAX. At least this had something to do with teaching.

For most of my career, I had cleared a DMZ between the personal/artistic growth associated with my writing and my development as an educator, vigilant about keeping any spontaneous commerce between those two worlds implicit, behind the professional scrim. But the curse of teaching is that everything seems to find its way back to the classroom; every experience, no matter how we try to isolate it from our teaching, winds up in the service of it.

And a similar phenomenon occurred with my new job as the person responsible for administrating the reviews for faculty who'd been at the school for nine years or more. Cynicism, along with a degree of cockiness, maybe, had taught me to believe that the process for evaluation of faculty was probably the force least likely to spark or foster transformative growth, especially in the guy running the show. But suddenly I was applying for the position and then being appointed that person in charge of the very program that would potentially put more distance between me and my students. And my writing.

Although the title, continuing professional development (CPD) coordinator, doesn't have riveted to its prow the august prefix Dean of…, it's an administrative "job" that sails farther inside the harbors and coves of the classroom than I had imagined. And that's why I love it, and what makes it as important to me, ironically, as the junkets and monkish writing retreats. It's easy to mistake the realm of "professional development" for that bucket of funds into which we dip our ladles every so often for a summer conference, graduate school, research, or simply what we do to — sigh… you knew this was coming — "recharge" during our time away from school. In my experience, independent schools are mighty generous in this territory. But what about the purely cloistral resources? I'll bet there are sheaves of theses and dissertations on the topic of "on-site" PD, ed school libraries brimming with papers and articles that confirm why our own institutions' internal human riches are begging to be plundered and exploited right under our frenetic school-year noses. Nothing against research, but CPD coordinator was my ticket to the experiential fast-track: being the person responsible for shepherding senior faculty through the newly installed, inherently constructive process.

Before my appointment, it was an experimental program conceived, in the interests of equity and growth at any point in one's career, to augment the existing evaluation process, which scrutinized only those faculty in their first four years (the "is it a good fit?" test). When your job seems to be on the line, however, it takes a lot of imagination and a tough skin to embrace any "review" as constructive or professionally developmental when the rest of the veteran faculty are waving to you from across that river of initiation, safe in the trills of crickets and pleasantly undulant meadows of their remaining careers. Enter CPD-Threepio (a moniker one of my more satirical colleagues has affixed to my new administrative function). I had been through the CPD process as a guinea pig in its early stages, and never felt more connected to colleagues outside my department. When the usual accountability checklist takes a back seat in the process — explicitly or otherwise — and observation of classes drives conversations about the nuances of teaching, a review can be a living, professionally relevant experience, and also be just as developmental as, say, an NEH grant to study the American Revolution or a trip to see the new production of Hamlet in London. When the opportunity to rotate through this leadership position arrived, I didn't balk the way I had when the door to department chair swung open; I lunged across that threshold the way I do into my favorite boutique guitar store.

Bill Frisell's new album ("Big Sur") was heralded with a short documentary about its impulse and inception: Frisell's retreat to an isolated coastal ranch in Central California. In the video, he describes the influence of the place, the dramatic and evocative landscape, and how it ultimately became the subject and theme for the music itself, but even more so, what it provided both spiritually and practically as a reflective space. He is a guitarist who has always taken risks, but in the film's interviews there was a subtle flame in his eyes that seemed to augur something different. Commissioned as an individual composition by the Monterey Jazz Festival, Frisell's recent leap was a product of people brainstorming, in his words, a concept as simple as, "…what if we put a musician up in this place… and see what might happen."

I might be risking another cliché by suggesting that real growth can be initiated by formal process but shouldn't be caged by it. The expansion of Frisell's original charge beyond the boundaries of the commission seems emblematic of the type of growth I admire most in teaching. True, Frisell was on his own at Glen Deven Ranch (see "monkish retreat") but he was also dreaming about how this new project might translate with an ensemble. Teachers, outside the solo work of writing self-assessments, have to collaborate, be part of teams when it comes to taking charge of their own evaluations. The hope of any school, especially one committed to the discussion-based classroom, is that students learn from each other, but almost as important is the review process's gift of a structure and environment where teachers learn from each other. The transplanted Irish poet, Louis MacNeice, though he was trying to capture the fraught spirit of London just before World War II (and not teacher evaluations in independent schools), wrote in his long masterpiece, "Autumn Journal":

…There is no reason for thinking That, if you give a chance to people to think or live, The arts of thought or life will suffer and become rougher And not return more than you could ever give.

What drew me at the age of 23 to independent schools (which were neither part of my childhood nor infused into any aspect of my family ethos) was the baptism-by-fire approach, the faith that doing it, right from the start, was the best way to understand and get better at it — a privilege that neither Navy helicopter pilots nor pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons get. I was hurled into a Latin classroom, struggled and doubted myself for five years and then I had something to talk about, something to evaluate. When all was said and done (despite the casualties) and I had weaseled into an English position, it wasn't my unlikely mastery of basic Latin that mattered most to me; it was whether or not I was becoming a better teacher, how I might import those skills into a new phase.

After about 10 years, I drifted to other schools, feeling better about my career (probably because it didn't matter that I had been a fraudulent Latin teacher), a confidence which to some extent had derived its energy from graduate school and pushing my own writing in new directions, but even more profoundly from an acute commitment to discussion-based teaching. Winding up at Phillips Exeter Academy, which has an enduring commitment to the discussion table as the core of learning, I found that evaluation actually meant something, that the elastic nature of the student-centered classroom made conversations about teaching even more compelling. Something was at stake.

Visiting classes across disciplines is liberating, because teaching, not the subject, is the focus. Most important, communication was rooted in the event: just after the grit, smoke, and salt-spray of actual classes, the immediate, raw context. What just happened in there? What were the ramifications of my interventions? What would you have done? Has this happened to you before?

One of the essential differences between poetry and prose is the line: the syntax contained by a poem's individual line has the potential to blossom into two meanings once the reader has dropped a rung and fused the following line's syntactical interests to the already-up-and-running idea. "It's the good kind of ambiguity," I've told my skeptical students. Being CPD coordinator seemed to hold the educational equivalent of that good ambiguity. The career promise of a two-for-one. I was supposed to be holding a mirror up to my colleagues' styles and approaches so that they could appreciate better what they were doing. Even though the trimester barrels on, and workloads remain the same, I've tried to create that space where they can, in MacNeice's words, "think or live" in their professions. What I had not expected was that my classroom would end up benefiting so profoundly from their examples and risks.

At first, I wondered if I had any right to advise a faculty member who was not an English teacher. But, because of the very nature of the discussion table, unpacking the class dynamic or the ramifications of a teacher's decisions in subjects that were way outside my sphere or completely over my head was liberating when it should have been terrifying. Likewise, they had good reason to wonder what business I had wandering into their sancta. To introduce teachers to the spirit of CPD, I gave them Atul Gawande's piece from The New Yorker, "Personal Best," an article about the possibility of mid-late career professional growth, where evaluation is translated to something closer to coaching. He writes, "Jobs that involve the complexities of people or nature seem to take the longest to master."

I've always been uncomfortable with the term "master teacher," and that's why I respect Gawande's quote: it implies that maybe we'll never really master teaching, the same way we can never master a guitar: we get better at it, but there are still aspects of it that are always ahead of us, beyond our grasp, as we change, get older, accumulate experience, stumble upon some new inspiration, like Frisell at Big Sur. The reason many of us still teach is because we crave that element of mystery, the opportunity to grow at any phase of our careers. I see the discussion-based classroom as the most essential element in ensuring that this remains the case. After observing, speaking with, or writing about my colleagues (whether they're teaching quantum mechanics, dialectical materialism, DNA folding, or villanelles), I've noticed that the most electrifying moments don't necessarily occur from their perusal of student evaluations, writing self-assessments, and reading the reports of their peer observers, all familiarly summative devices to a certain degree. The simple truth is that growth happens when they talk to each other about what just occurred in the classroom — regardless of the subject — whether it was triumphant, tragic, or just plain confusing.

We hope that the fruits of any constructive evaluative process improve our classrooms, enhance the experience of our students. The principal reason I applied and signed on to this job was because it had everything to do with the classroom, which, because we wear so many hats here, always seems to be drifting farther into the mist of metaphor, drifting out of our crosshairs, when it should always be at the center of our thinking. I've noticed that many administrative jobs are about stepping back from (if not fleeing) the classroom, so finding one that inserted me even deeper into its dynamic without the weight of being a Field Marshal of the Accountability Police was almost religious, and might keep me teaching for a few more years. Sometimes, walking the paths over the past 18 years at Exeter, I've noticed this place was pretty quiet during classes, like an insane asylum or secret government research facility; you can't help wondering what horrific spasms or chilling, unnatural breakthroughs might be going on in all of these buildings. Well, now I know. And it's something akin to what I felt in the presence of Montale's coast, Wordsworth's tarns. Though my stint in this position will end after next year, I'll be taking with me, like a magpie on crank, all of the glittering facets of how my colleagues get their students to learn from each other.

Even though it originated with a formal commission, Frisell's idea for "Big Sur" was organic, still took him by surprise as it grew. What struck me as I listened to him was his halting explanation of the irony of being surrounded by such an awesome, potentially distracting panorama, delivered in that personably spacey, sometimes discursive syntax of a jazz musician, "…of course the music was inspired by the place, but the place also allowed me to look inside… myself… it wasn't just about looking out."

Ralph Sneeden

Ralph Sneeden teaches English and serves as the continuing professional development coordinator at Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire). He is the author of Evidence of the Journey, a collection of poetry.