Critical pedagogy meets Year 9 library orientation (Week 2 #MOOCMOOC)

I write this post in the second week of MOOCMOOC which focuses on Chapter 1 of bell hooksTeaching to Transgress and two short videos from Anita Sarkeesian. As Jesse Stommel and Maha Bali write in their introductory post, bell hooks is writing about something more than just feminist or antiracist pedagogy. Maha and Jesse  talk about the way that bell hooks is influenced by Buddhist philosophy, believing that the whole person of the teacher and of the student should be part of the pedagogical process.

Showing vulnerability to our students is not part of our professional conversations at school. It is something some teachers might do instinctively while others might find it confronting and even wrong. Maha and Jesse quote Danielle Paradis who wrote about this in“The Pleasures, the Perils, and the Pursuit of Pedagogical Intimacy,”: Learning is uncomfortable, and the trouble with letting someone teach you is that it leaves a mark — an impression.”

Since we’ve just started the new school year, I’m keeping these thoughts foremost in my mind when thinking about my teaching goals for the year, and generally in terms of how to prepare my attitude to my classes and library supervision.  Teaching is easier to direct in terms of intimacy,  acknowledging  our responsibility to care for our students – and let’s face it, that’s easy to do with a new intake of students who are still well behaved and wide-eyed.

Library supervision is harder. Firstly, you don’t know all the students since there are too many of them. I’m really bad with names, and if I miss their name in the beginning of the year, I’m too embarrassed to ask later on.  A non-teaching relationship with students is both easier and more difficult. Easier because we can be more casual with them and we have the opportunity to chat informally without the pressure of teaching content, but more difficult because I think it’s the teaching/learning relationship which develops the intimacy through caring for the development of the student, and in the visible transformation of students over time.  We are also not supposed to be talking to students when they come to the library to study in their free periods, and that’s because we try to maintain a quiet study environment in one part of the library which we, as teacher librarians, supervise.

And: “teaching and learning ARE inevitably intimate.” Maha and Jesse talk about the importance of bringing our full selves to our teaching, and point out that teaching and learning are inevitably  intimate.

I guess that means that we would let the overly professional persona fall away when teaching, but it doesn’t mean we act unprofessionally. If we keep the students as our focus and care about the students’ welfare, remembering that we leave an impression whatever we do, then we surely transfer our focus from conveying content to interacting with our students.

I’m not sure if I’ve understood bell hooks’ feeling of estrangement from education but I know that there have been school or school library environments which made me feel uncomfortable, repressed and unhappy. I didn’t feel I was teaching well or relating properly to students. It didn’t have as much to do with the students themselves as the tone that was set by the head of faculty/library or other library staff. If I didn’t feel comfortable with that tone, that approach to the students, I felt as if I had to squeeze everything out of me, and put on a thin facade, copying the external behaviour and speech of others in an attempt to emulate them. It didn’t work for me, and it didn’t work for the students. It made me feel bad.

On the other hand, when the attitude to students and approach to teaching is compatible with my own, then I’m happy to be vulnerable, to expose my imperfections, as well as my personality. You have to be comfortable within yourself to be willing to expose vulnerability. Some people might, by their nature, do this seemingly without effort, but for others it takes practice, reflection and time, while others still will not do this at all.

It took me a very long time to expose my vulnerability in my role as a priest’s wife in the Russian Orthodox Church. Possibly because I took on this role at the age of 26 – too young actually. And also because I was not ‘groomed’ for the role, and did not grow up in a particularly devout family – sure, we went to church but not every week. I was not educated in Orthodox dogma and no doubt had unformed ideas which needed time to mature. In a way, I interrupted that opportunity for growth because I suddenly had to take on a role that was associated with high ideals and pressure from the members of the church community. I ‘took on’ a persona but one which was dangerously superficial, ungrounded, and somehow managed to keep going in that way for many years. Having children only resulted in a more passionate stance on what I’d become because I felt it was my duty to educate them in the way I had perceived they ought to be educated – from the outside. Of course, eventually, the cracks start to show, and I was faced with a choice: to continue as I had been or decide to do it my way, true to myself. This took time, as you can imagine, because I had almost lost who I was, or at least, lost the confidence in my own instincts and understanding of things. Doing this meant I had to grow a thick skin so that I wouldn’t care about what people thought about me as much as I care about my own survival, and my honesty. Not going this way would have been destructive. I believe that you can’t have any kind of faith unless you stay true to yourself. Taking on something externally doesn’t work. Understanding it from the inside (of yourself) is the only way.

It’s the same with any relationship, and teaching must be intimate, surely, and must be vulnerable, if you are to connect honestly with students, if learning is more than a transmission of content knowledge. Obviously that doesn’t mean you expose every part of yourself which would be inappropriate, but it means that you don’t shut off who you are so that students see you relating to them honestly. And I think that’s the only way you get real satisfaction from teaching. A lot of this is unspoken in schools but you can tell when there is that kind of relationship between teachers and students.

So when I first started as a teacher librarian, having ‘forsaken’ the classroom (English, French and German), my library orientation was all about where the printers were,  the cost of fines, how to use the library catalogue, how to use databases. It was so boring, I was bored and unhappy about it myself. I was following the procedure of others because I was inexperienced.  In not showing my full self was really like not showing up at all. Presenting my authentic non-neutral self in the classroom has made me very happy.

Today was the first day we had students at school – just the Year 9s, all brand spanking new. In my ‘library orientation’ sessions I wanted to connect to my students first foremost, and convey information to them as the second priority. I was aware that they didn’t know each other on their first day and spent some time asking questions and encouraging responses to start that ball rolling. How could I possibly waste my first time with these young men talking about rules and regulations only? I wanted to make a much deeper impression than that.  I wanted to challenge their perception of the library, talk about information (the fire hydrant), the dangerous ideas, freedom of speech and expression, respect for others and their ideas – but most of all I wanted to be myself and get to know them a little. I wanted to start the process of getting them to know each other in their classroom community. I definitely wanted them to challenge their perception of the library as being just a space with books and bookshelves – which was the standard answer when I asked them.

Perhaps, to not show up as our full selves to the act of learning is not to show up at all. This means placing our authentic non-neutral selves fully in the classroom — with all the risks and challenges that brings. (Maha and Jesse)

My focus today was not on the listing of rules or information but on engaging them with me and each other, to give them the chance to consider important questions before they were sucked up into the wave which would push them through the year at a pace that might not have time for reflection because they were intent on survival.

Here’s the slideshow I created which serves as a prompt for discussion with the students. Some slides resulted in long and deep discussions and others just covered some necessary facts. Of course every session was different depending on the dynamics of the group and the response I received from them

It so happened that just minutes before my session, amidst the predictable technology failings and panic, I read Maha Bali’s post and was reminded about the aspect of vulnerability in critical pedagogy.

Now, I find a lot of difficulty talking to people without knowing anything about them.

Yes, and I imagine that students feel a lot better meeting a teacher who says a little about herself.


So since they don’t all know each other that well, I asked them to do a round of “Name+something no one here knows about you”

… so the person on my left, he felt really uncomfortable sharing something about himself. He said his name. I said, “and something about yourself?” and he was like “no”.

I became aware of vulnerable beginnings. I shared something about myself first. I told them I had 2 sons and that one of them was completing a Masters degree in Urban Planning and the other was doing third year Music – both at Melbourne Uni. Suddenly they see me as a parent.  A little peek through the ‘teacher librarian’ exterior. I told them that, contrary to popular belief that librarians spent all their time reading fiction, I had not read much fiction in the last few years, that I felt like I wanted to learn and keep learning about things, and so I read information (non-fiction). Suddenly I’ve broken the librarian stereotype. It’s a start towards bell hooks’ holistic education, her ‘engaged pedagogy’.

Many of them shared things about each other, some being funny, and that’s all good. Their body language started to change. They were facing the front looking at me and the screen, and now they started turning to each other to exchange responses. The shift had begun. We talked about banned books, (burned books even), Charlie Hebdo, and many other things. I had added an extra slide to the end of my existing presentation.

I added Maha’s great questions: Why am I here, what are my goals, and what do I have to offer others here?

Photo source:

Thank you to Maha and Jesse for orchestrating this week’s #moocmooc goodness. So much more to learn – and now to read the Twitter chat retrospectively.




9 thoughts on “Critical pedagogy meets Year 9 library orientation (Week 2 #MOOCMOOC)”

  1. I’ve tweeted this post a million times already but i thought i should also leave a comment which feels more permanent.

    This might be the most beautiful thing i have read in a while, and that’s saying a lot because i read a lot by beautiful writers like those of Hybrid Pedagogy.

    Thank you for sharing so beautifully of yourself, making those wonderful connections, and thank you also for reading my blog before your session and allowing it to influence the session. It’s one of the most rewarding, touching things anyone has ever written involving me. Love and hugs

    1. Maha, thank you so much for your words. Our private Facebook conversation got me thinking about sharing in my blog in a more open way, but I turned away from that kind of vulnerability. I was struggling with authenticity while trying to write a post for this week’s MOOCMOOC, and was disappointed nothing seemed to flow because you and Jesse had written your joint post so beautifully. Funny how things come out even when you’ve decided you’re not up to being that vulnerable, and it’s freeing. You continue to be one of the most inspirational and genuinely supportive people I’ve met. xox

  2. I love this story of coming to meet your students on their first day (and I love that the slide show as so inviting, not lecturing).

    The word “professional” jumped out at me: “overly professional persona”. I am so intrigued with the (I’m assuming, male) definitions of professional that imply distance, a role rather than a person. Who gets to decides what “professional” is?

    I’m so curious about the wallpaper images on your blog. Is their story here somewhere?

    1. Haha, the ‘overly professional persona’ is probably my own clumsy way of trying to describe something I have no language for. Interesting to consider its origin in my bag of linguistic evaluations, haha. Is there an apt word or phrase for this kind of teaching persona.

      The wallpaper images are photos one of my sons took in Melbourne laneways. Melbourne (Australia) is famous for its lanes and graffiti. Thanks for dropping by to comment, Jane.

  3. Hi Tania, thank you for writing this post. I really enjoyed it for many reasons…including one that Maha mentions above – it being a very beautifully written, honest and authentic post. Also getting some insight into the goings on and inspiration from #moocmooc which I haven’t had a lot of time to follow, but am interested in. But, most of all, because it spoke to me on a personal level, as what you have said about showing vulnerability in learning is very relevant to something I am experiencing personally…
    Specifically this passage:
    “On the other hand, when the attitude to students and approach to teaching is compatible with my own, then I’m happy to be vulnerable, to expose my imperfections, as well as my personality. You have to be comfortable within yourself to be willing to expose vulnerability. Some people might, by their nature, do this seemingly without effort, but for others it takes practice, reflection and time, while others still will not do this at all.”

    The relevance of this to me isn’t related to teaching or in fact anything work related – but rather to learning at a personal level. I’ve recently started developing a closer friendship with someone I know from work, sharing and working through some personal life issues that I wouldn’t normally share with people I work with. It’s been a very valuable experience – and I’ve learnt a lot about both dealing with the situation more constructively as well as a lot about myself in the process. It’s the sort of learning however that is exactly as you’ve described above – it requires you to expose vulnerability, and face imperfections, to willingly crack the facade. Something I’m not at all comfortable doing with most people…but in the right context, it can be very liberating and free you up to move past and on from your imperfections to work on improving the situation – and yourself.

    1. Hi Tanya,
      I really appreciate you taking the time to read my post and comment. Posts like these which you’re in two minds about posting make you feel nervous unless someone comes in and reinforces their value. I mean I was unsure of saying everything I did but kind of happy that I did. I don’t know if there’s a real distinction between learning professionally – especially when it’s risky learning involving exposing something of yourself. It’s all happening in you, so it’s the same. Yes, it is liberating. I’m 55 and I’m thinking – how long will I hold onto insecurities about things, it’s time I was honest about myself.

  4. Hi
    Hattie’s research gives the big tick to student teacher relationships – and something has to happen for there to be a relationship beyond transactional. As you’ve identified in your posts, it does require a giving of yourself in some way beyond the particular role entered in the learning environment. That role carries certain preconceptions on the part of both learner and teacher. As you have identified, as soon as the teacher steps away from the traditional ‘teacher’ structure and into the learner zone, a change occurs. The ‘we are all learners here, heading towards the same goal, and what will skills and content do we need to gain to get there’ has its limitations I know, but it is a good start. I have a colleague who pointed out that it was difficult for teachers to let go, to allow for changed modes of learning. She said the idea that although all the students were headed to the same destination but they might need to travel in different trains along different routes to get there was a worrying one for teachers. But in that model I can see that teachers need still to provide the skills to do the equivalent of knowing what the destination is, the routes, the ticketing, etc. However what you are talking about is beyond that too, isn’t it? You are referring to standing with the students as they look at the journey so that you know each other as fellow travellers, able to relate easily as you progress. Once that relationship is established between you and them, and they with each other, you can say, I’ve travelled this route before – this is how I did it, and this is how others did it and these are the techniques we used, and here are some shared examples of things that others have found along the way. What will you find? And how will you share that with others? The teacher librarian role certainly has its challenges, especially when there is often little opportunity for establishing familiarity. I like the way you chose to step outside the perceptions that others might have about library and become the enabler of students focusing on themselves and their relationships with each other in a particular context.

    1. Anne, thank you for your thoughtful and informative comment. It’s particularly important for me to have the opportunity for this kind of dialogue with fellow TLs because these types of conversations are scarce amongst us – am I wrong? I am experimenting with “anarchist teacher librarian” to explore a relationship with teachers and students which sees us a co-learners and freed from restraints of perceived TL roles which sometimes do not venture into territory which is exciting for me.

      What you say is true – we often have little opportunity for establishing familiarity with teachers and students. This has bothered me for some time. If we try to undo the notion that TLs are there for discrete skills, such as information literacy, and instead model co-learning and co-teaching, then I think we might have a chance for a more integrated role. Otherwise our teacher colleagues (and students) see our role as just added and therefore not integrated.

      I like to think of my role as something that fills the spaces between the content packages which is the domain of the teachers. And so we are about teaching skills, encouraging reflective and connected learning through social media (such as blogging), modelling transformative teaching through the use of targeted technology tools, and just being there as a second teacher-person in the room – because why would one be enough?

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