In The English Teacher’s Companion, Jim Burke offers his “four components of good teaching” (6). They are Construction, Occupation, Negotiation, and Conversation. He addresses each one separately, but rightly notes how they all mix, mingle, and inform each other, creating an interplay between elements that is both central to and unavoidable in effective teaching. While one lesson may lean more toward a particular component than another, no single class will revolve around only one. That is no great insight because it simply follows logically from Burke’s process of deconstructing and analyzing what good teachers do. It strikes me, however, that the component of occupation, more than any of the others, functions to tie them all together. Occupation seems to show up and supply the underlying force that makes each of the other three successful.
When Burke talks about the concept of occupation as a component of teaching, he is referring to methods and lessons that require students to assume a different imaginary space; they are urged to occupy the minds of others. From fictional characters to poets and authors to historical figures, when instruction allows students to try on various points of view, they come to understand the material in a deeper and more meaningful way. Seeing anything from multiple perspectives always yields a more complete view, and occupation functions toward that end.
“Manipulating words to change their meaning” is one way that Burke exemplifies his conception of construction (9). In contemplating students working to understand the flexibility of language, it requires no great leap to see how they are occupying different roles depending on situation, purpose, and audience. In Burke’s poem reconstruction example, it is clear that students must occupy the role of poet, then perhaps assume different roles to construct meaning, and subsequently assume yet another role if they are to express that meaning in a new way (like an essay or digital film). In this way, occupation drives construction.
By negotiation, Burke means that student and teacher are of a mindset where “the English class necessarily becomes a communal space where students must assume control as the progress toward independence” (16). It’s a process whereby the students take control of their own learning, assignments, and assessment. Occupation is also vital to negotiation because it encourages students to abandon the familiar role of apprentice and occupy the more active positions of assessor and peer reviewer. In order for a class to benefit from negotiation, students must move in and occupy a new and different mental space.
The last component that Burke addresses is conversation, which focuses on the ability to communicate ideas effectively and clearly. Conversation can manifest itself as “a Socratic Seminar about a story or idea,” “a small-group discussion,” or “online exchanges,” to name a few (21). Each different method of conversing, however, will require a different occupation. The parameters of any given conversation demand a certain perspective, tone, and intent. A student discussing poetry with a classmate in a group discussion will have to occupy a much different mental space when drafting a letter to the editor of a local newspaper. In its multiple forms, conversation implies occupation.
Upon reflection, it comes as no huge surprise that occupation should be so pervasive in a discussion of education. For students to develop the active minds that the world demands and we hope to foster, they must be adept at assuming various points of view and approaching problems from multiple perspectives. As Romano reminds us in Writing with Passion, “Perception is all” (109). Reality does not exist as a static singularity, but is open to interpretation.