William Bernhardt – Becoming a Teacher:

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One person’s experience

William Bernhardt

William Bernhardt


I’m not sure when I first thought about becoming a teacher but it couldn’t have been any later than the fourth grade when I was nine years old. Perhaps because I was often intimidated by other children who seemed to be more intelligent and more forceful than myself, there was something very appealing about being in control of a class. I daydreamed of the time when I might stand in front of thirty children and impress them with the knowledge and authority which I was unable to exert on my contemporaries.

How much my teachers seemed to know! It seemed that they could answer any question. Often, when some wise guy in the class posed a difficult query to one of my teachers I felt a sense of protective identification and a slight twinge of fear. How could she possibly find an answer to this one? And then, without a moment’s hesitation, the answer came, confidently and forcefully. How proud and delighted I felt at such moments! How smart my teacher is, I thought, but then a disquieting ripple passed over my mind as I wondered whether I could ever know so much.

Later on, as my own store of information expanded, I was more critical and less admiring. Now I secretly thrilled when one of my teachers was caught in a mistake or an evasion. Still later, in College, I was shocked to discover that for many of my professors, teaching was a matter of keeping one chapter ahead of the class, of turning unwelcome questions back on the questioner (“and what do you think, Bill?”) or of dismissing topics for which the instructor had no ready supply of words (“I think we should defer this until next week”).

Discovering the weaknesses of my teachers, and observing the strategies and tactics they employed to cover their ignorance and defensiveness, made me feel more confident about becoming a teacher myself. Not only had I acquired information to rival some of my professors, but I fancied that I had prepared myself to be an unusually lively and entertaining presence in the classroom.

At the time when I began my teaching career I felt that I had a very great deal to ‘give’ my students. Comparatively speaking, I had read everything and they nothing. To what extent that illusion was shared by those in my classes I can’t say. My impression is that one or two people in each of my courses were inspired by my performance (as I had been by certain of my own instructors) to the extent of emulation my style of telling an anecdote, my way of turning aside unwelcome questions, or my techniques for making dry topics slightly amusing. But, in the main, those who entered the class as ‘good students’ were continuing an apprenticeship launched somewhere else, and the rest endured with the same mixture of resignation and good will that they brought to all of their other courses.

I enjoyed performing when a class “went well”. But I couldn’t fail to notice that what transpired in the classroom was always less intense and engaging for me than the period of solitary preparation which preceded it. I felt that my own, independent acquisition of knowledge was the “real” thing, whereas time spent with the students was a distraction from what I perceived as “my own work”.

That there was any alternative to these habitual ways of thinking and acting never occurred to me during my first ten years as a college professor in Britain and the U.S. It was due to and almost chance event -a workshop in Spanish which I took at Educational Solutions in New York during July, 1971- that I first became aware of my lack of preparation as a teacher.

During the morning of the first day of the workshop, as I struggled to master the Spanish sounds associated with each of the rods, the teacher asked me what seemed at the time to be both a mysterious and irrelevant question: “What are you doing with yourself?” And when I was unable to frame a reply she asked another question: “Are you using your energy to listen or in trying to remember? Do you know the difference between ‘trying’ and ‘opening up to the sounds’?”

What struck me most forcibly was her attitude. It was clear that she didn’t care much about the Spanish vocabulary she had introduced or whether I would ever ‘get it’. What concerned her was what was happening inside me. She wanted to know whether I knew what I was doing or if the whole experience was a blur.

I didn’t learn much Spanish during that week. Learning to take account of what was happening inside myself became my task instead. As the days passed, I became far more attentive to my own inner movements and aware of how little attention I had habitually given to such study. By the end of the week I could definitely discriminate between various internal states and know, with certainty, when I was “with it”, when I was distracted by my emotions (such as my anxiety to appear as a ‘good student’), when I was putting blocks in the way of the sounds reaching me, and so on.

That week represented the first time in my life that I was actively monitoring my own inner dynamics to observe what I was “doing with myself”. Acquiring this new awareness made me also acknowledge my previous unconsciousness. I saw that I had always viewed my own learning as a mysterious (sometimes miraculous) phenomenon because I had no way of observing it as it happened. Previously, my learning could only be tested through external feedback. Now, I was acquiring my own inner criteria.

Many of the lessons of this week only came to me later on, through reflection and with the added impact of additional seminars and workshops led by Dr. Gattegno. Even then, however, I recognized that I had passed an important threshold. I realized that learning could, and must be studied in what was for me a new way -as a psychological reality within my own mind. Further, I acknowledged that teaching, as I had encountered it in the Spanish course, was something different than I had always assumed it to be. Its primary focus was not a body of content or skills but the learner.

Having arrived at these new awarenesses, I was also struck by the fact that, on a verbal level, they were hardly ‘new’. For years, I had heard (and spoken) of “knowing within oneself”, “understanding the process of learning”, and other such phrases. But it was only during this week, and its aftermath, that these words truly gained a concrete reality for me and assumed the force of fresh perceptions. Thus, when I resumed teaching the following September, I approached the classroom in a very different spirit than ever before and with many new preoccupations:

Learning is something which, when it happens, happens inside me; it is therefore a matter of awareness or consciousness rather than behavior or performance.

Because my learning is inner, private, it is only truly accessible to me… if I have prepared myself to monitor its presence… and is largely invisible from outside.

Teaching, by contrast to learning, is a matter of externals. That I teach is no guarantee that learning takes place.

Because of the disjunction between teaching and learning, a teacher such as myself needs to become a specialist in my own inner experience of learning. Without this, how can .I ever hope to work with others?
The challenge of becoming a specialist in my own learning is at least as difficult as mastering the content of any academic field, probably more so.

Having these concerns prompted me to prepare for my courses in English Composition in a new way, by studying my own internal process. I began by asking myself the questions “What happens in me to produce writing? What do I do with myself?

As this was my first attempt to make an independent study of myself, I can’t say that I proceeded in a disciplined or systematic manner. I was frankly groping. I was probably too easily satisfied by the first answers that came to mind. Still, I had to start somewhere. What came to me was that writing had never been for me as it was described in the textbooks. It was never triggered by outlines or notes, or thinking about my prospective audience. These all came later. What I found to be crucial was a certain inner state or climate which I could call ‘the writing state of mind’. Without this, no amount of outside pressure or ‘motivation’ would elicit writing. Later on, I was to probe deeper, to find the precise attributes of this state, but at this stage it was sufficient for me to recognize that the ground level of writing was a certain inner preparation. So I asked myself further questions: “Are there external conditions which seem particularly compatible with achieving the writing state of mind? Can I provide my students with an environment that will encourage them to mobilize themselves the same way that I do?”

During that term I began each class by asking the students to compose for a few minutes (sometimes longer) in little blue examination booklets which I distributed to them for this purpose. I demanded that they “keep the pencil moving continuously. If you can’t think of anything to write, simply write words selected at random.” When each day’s writing was completed, the booklets were closed without reading or discussion of their content. Nor did I ever read what the students had composed. I did, however, question them at the conclusion of each day’s writing experience, asking them “What has happened to you today? Do you know what happens in you at the moment when the words start to come? Is the process today any different today than it was yesterday, or last week?”

At first, most of the students found it difficult to talk about themselves rather than about what was on the paper. They would start to report what they had written about, or the extent to which they found it easy or hard to find something to say without a prompt from the teacher. Gradually, however, individuals in the group began to notice the presence of an inner sense of something to say which seemed prior to language. Some also reported on the existence of mental imagery that triggered words and a variety of inner voices – some dictating, as it were, to their writing hands; others criticizing and judging.
This was by no means a precisely formulated exercise, and there were some who seemed totally unaffected by it. Still, it represented a new way of working for me:

I was starting from what I knew of myself, with the assumption that the learners in my classes were like me.

I was focusing not on the product (what they wrote) or my own ideas and theories but on what the students were doing with themselves and noticing about themselves.

I had stopped trying to give the learners advice and tips.

I was making the encounter with the learners in the classroom the center of my teaching life.

I was suspending my judgment about students who didn’t respond favorably to what was happening in the class instead of viewing them as hostile or deficient.

These changes in my way of working did not, I want to emphasize, transform me into a good teacher. But they did make me more of a teacher. That is, they helped my to approach my students in a more conscious, more humble, and more empirical spirit.

As I continued to look into myself, with the aid of further workshops and seminars with Dr. Gattegno and his staff, I was struck by many more questions:

What inhibits me from writing? Can I be inhibited by my need to use words I can’t spell? By assigned topics which find no echo in my experience? By my own standards of “good writing”?
Do I know when I have something to say? How?
Is there anything I can say orally but not write? Are there any significant differences .for me between speaking and writing besides spelling?

What role does mental imagery play in my composing? Does seeing the content in my mind always help me find words?

How do I cope with the fact that the words often come fast but my hand transcribes them more slowly? Do I have a way of holding what I say until my hand catches up to my voice?

Where are my grammatical criteria? In my intellect? In my ears? In my voice? Where?

How do I prepare myself to address a variety of different audiences (the readers of this article, my students, my more scholarly colleagues, etc.)?

My reflection on these and other questions continues. I find that, as time goes on, I have more rather than fewer questions to think about.

For me, becoming a teacher has been first and foremost a process of initiating an internal dialogue. It has been a matter of learning to recognize the necessity of setting aside all the knowledge that I have previously accumulated in order to examine myself from within and be with the here and now. I can’t claim that the last 19 years of self-examination accompanied by experimentation and improvisation in the classroom have made me a great or even a good teacher. But I am certain that I have become a teacher.

© William Bernhardt
New York, 1990


William Bernhardt teaches at The College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

He studied with Dr. Gattegno starting in the early 70s, and all of his teaching and writing since that time has been part of an effort to integrate what he learned from Gattegno with his everyday life and work.

In recent years, he has been particularly concerned with applying the principles of Words in Color and The Silent Way to teaching and learning with computers, while trying to always keep in mind that technology is a human invention and must be used with respect for the powers of learners that transcend all technologies.

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“Becoming a Teacher: One person’s experience” by William Bernhardt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.