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Henry Maier: An appreciation of his teaching

Hy Resnick

I have worked with Henry at The University of Washington School of Social Work for the last 25 years. We have taught, written, planned, debriefed and strategized together about classes, workshops and even a faculty meeting or two. We have swapped secrets, worries and plans during this period which, at times, was quite turbulent. Throughout, he has been my colleague, friend, co-worker and confidant. So many rich memories flood my mind when I think about what I have learned from and about him that it is difficult to know where to begin; perhaps I’ll start with his teaching because so many of the readers of this appreciation probably know him from that vantage point.

Henry “walks his talk”, to use the language of the popular management literature. If he is lecturing about the importance of planning for beginnings in the helping process with clients, he replicates that approach in his first class session with a group of students by bringing in cushions for them to sit on, encouraging them to put their feet up on the chairs, providing coffee, tea and cookies, and introducing himself with his familiar, “Hello, I’m Henry.” For Henry, effective beginnings must start with the-body-and-the-person.

In addition to this focus on helping students feel safe, physically comfortable, centred and personally known in their beginnings with him, he does not ignore the task at hand — that is, their purpose in coming together. He finds the right moment during the class — not at the start of the class — to clarify why they are there and what his (and their) goals are. Usually at that time, when it fits into the flow of the discussion, he introduces his class outline, assignments and reading list.

These class outlines are replete with short, catchy headers which both describe the content of class sessions and engage the student’s imagination. His reading lists are comprehensive, current and challenging. His assignments are not only demanding but creative, fun and interesting to do. For example, one of his assignments (which I now regularly use in my classes) is to write a letter to a young relative or friend explaining what social work is and why it is a good profession in which to find a career — a demanding exercise in communicating written ideas clearly. Another assignment equally challenging, but in ways that test the students’ oral communication and persuasion skills, is to obtain entry to a staff meeting in a social work agency and explain how social system thinking can help a social worker be more effective in his or her practice!

His approach to each class is that it is a new beginning, yet tied to the past week’s experience. Linking the last week’s content with this week’s session is an important element of his introductory remarks to each class. He asks the students with clearly conveyed interest, “Is there anything from last week that anyone wants to discuss?” The class is usually silent during the first few weeks at this question, but later when they begin to trust his sincerity, they energetically raise concerns or issues that the previous class sessions have elicited. He addresses these issues with a brief remark and some discussion, then goes on to the work of the day.

As the class or workshop moves into real examination of his content, he uses a Henry-modified-socratic method of engaging with the students when he wants them to grapple with and think through a concept. It is exciting to see the lights turn on for a particular student (and for the rest of the class) when s/he gets it! I admire his courage at these times for being willing to stick to it despite logical arguments against spending all that time with one student. He knows far better than I, that the class is listening, watching and learning from these interactions. Even though some students complain about taking up so much time with one student, Henry is adamant. Further, he often processes what he just did with the student and by so doing, further clarifies for the class the concepts he wishes to demonstrate. He, of course, knows he is modelling how to teach and the importance of persistence in teaching — one of Henry’s most enduring attributes.

He has a theory about rules, which he might define as: rules are broken sometimes and that’s okay. And that’s know he conducts his classes. If a student is late (Henry is clear that he expects students and himself to be on time), he usually makes a point of welcoming him/her, and if appropriate, briefly bringing him/her up to date; then moving back to the rest of the class and his material. He does this in a genuinely supportive manner without communicating criticism, so that the student who is late (often feeling quite guilty) is assured that this behaviour is acceptable and therefore can get to work without stewing over his/her lateness and whether Henry is irritated. Of course, if this becomes a pattern with this student or with the class, he deals with it (no avoiding hard issues for Henry) by meeting with the student individually. “Is it my teaching or is there something else that I can know about?” he might ask, and then often discovers that the student is indeed struggling with personal or school difficulties that have caused the lateness. At such a time, in his gracious but persistent way, he will offer to help.

These individual sessions with students are an integral part of his teaching philosophy. Although it takes enormous amounts of time, he religiously provides (and at times requires) this time from his students, who often can be seen in the hall near his office waiting to see him. His concern for his students and skill in helping them is well known to the student population. (Many of them not in his classes go to him for help with their personal worries and/or struggles with the school.)

He not only advises his students, he fights for them as their advocate even when their interests collide with faculty laziness or incompetence, bureaucratic rigidity or administrative manipulativeness — officially, when he was elected student advocate in the school, and unofficially and informally, as a professor who believes with all his soul in student rights and interests. I remember him saying at an emergency faculty meeting in the 1970s that had been convened to consider the school’s reaction to a student strike during the anti-Vietnam protest period, “If I have to choose between the students and us, I choose the students!” I need not add that Henry’s beliefs are often manifested in actions which include uncomfortable confrontations with deans and faculty at faculty meetings, as well as privately in offices. Henry, as I said, “walks his talk!”

His students, in all the above examples, not only hear the content message but experience it and observe it in his actions.

Planned class experiences
Although Henry provides real content in his lectures, I believe he prefers the experiential mode of pedagogy where he can move back and forth from the four arenas of information he utilizes: students’ experience, his own practice models and perspectives, the research findings in the literature, and finally the class as a learning/teaching system. He has created and designed experiences for (and sometimes with) his students — not willing to use canned exercises because that would feel cook-bookish to him, that would violate one of his tenets of the learning/ teaching transaction, which is that each class is different; therefore a class design must grow or emerge out of his interaction with and understanding of that class.

These planned class experiences include:

  1. His now-famous marbles-in-the-hand activity demonstrating rhythmicity, a favourite and relatively unknown concept in social work;

  2. His “interact-with-and-observe” a baby’s behaviour — the baby usually “donated” by one of the students — demonstrating one of Piaget’s concepts on development; and

  3. His facilitating an entire lecture class of 150 students into a simulation of a large public welfare organization and its networks. He orchestrated different sections of the class in this simulation to play the roles of clients, workers, supervisors, social work faculty, policemen, housing administrators, and workers to illustrate a social system approach to understanding and changing a social welfare organization. In these activities Henry would often use the learning model “do, see, debrief and try again.” Students playing various roles would experience how it felt to be a worker, supervisor or client in a typical client-worker interaction. Henry would then challenge the class with the very simple and disarming question “What did you see?”, after which the class would grow quiet until a brave soul ventured an observation, which would stimulate more questions from Henry such as “What else?” or “What did you see?” He emphasized the word “see” because students would frequently interpret behaviour (and miss the point) rather than describe behaviour.

Preparation for a class takes much time and energy from Henry. ‘What is he trying to accomplish in this class session?’ is the question he always puts to himself to direct his thinking and planning for a class. Once this is clear he moves into the relevant literature for supporting (as well as not supporting) research. Finally he plans his activity to engage the class sufficiently, and in a direction which helps him to accomplish his objectives. His favourite tools are newsprint, on which he lists the concepts for the day (he often calls it the “menu”); toys, including balloons, Lego sets, and blocks; and his physical body (students are fascinated with how Henry uses his body to say “I’m listening” or “You’re next” or “Say some more”). They are not only challenged by what he offers them in his classes, they are often delighted by his class activities. As one student has said, “You never know what will happen in Henry’s class.”

Students who come early often find Henry sitting cross-legged on the floor of the classroom, getting things ready. He finds tasks for them to help him, and soon they are busily writing on the board, setting up the Lego, or attaching crepe paper to the walls.

Henry’s teaching is wonderful to behold, but it can also be quite threatening to his colleagues because it brings out too clearly one’s own shortcomings and limitations. His role as a friend, mentor and colleague, however, dissipates all feelings of jealousy and inadequacy (most of the time) because of the way he is your friend. There are no halfway measures with his friends — once committed he is forever on your side, and that means birthday cards for you and your children, anniversary cards for you and your wife, holiday greetings (his cards are always carefully selected and even more carefully and personally notated), telephone calls of support when you are in trouble, and, perhaps most important, support for your professional goals. His letters recommending you for promotion or for a special appointment are detailed, lavish in praise, and unequivocally supportive.

Finally, what is Henry like?
He loves parties, especially his own, and he unabashedly loves to receive presents. Henry’s parties are fun-filled and present-giving events. Sometime during the festivities, after everybody has sufficient food and drink, it’s time for presents and Henry sits in the middle of the floor cross-legged, opening his presents one by one. He turns them around and around, trying to guess what they are or who has given them to him, and then he gasps delightedly when he discovers the giver or the meaning of the present. It is a joy to see him having such fun.

Although receiving gifts is a pleasure for Henry, giving presents is his real avocation. He and Jeanne spend hours deciding what to buy or (preferably) make for their many friends, students, neighbours and colleagues who have had a birthday, or are going on a trip, or who have recently won an award. It doesn’t end there. There is the wrapping to do and then the special and personal notes they append that make their presents so special and memorable.

During the winter holidays Henry and Jeanne hole up in their house, making presents and special gifts for their family. After figuring out which of the children and grandchildren need what, they then go down into their workshop and produce wonderful gifts! For Henry, Christmas is a family time and he and Jeanne devote themselves to it in their typical fully committed way to make it special for their family.

As I reflect about Henry and his commitment to and excitement about teaching (how unusual that can be in some university settings) and how much he has taught me — there isn’t a time in my teaching, writing or discoursing with others, when I’m stuck or in a quandary, that I don’t ask myself what would Henry do if he were in my place.

This feature: Resnick, Hy. (1993). Henry Maier: An appreciation of his teaching. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 8, 2. pp.21-25.