In my late 20s I visited the classroom of my eldest brother who was an English teacher for 30 years. He invited me to come talk about writing and marketing. He taught at a private school serving disadvantaged students. The institution was funded by a very large corporation where a nickel from every dollar of profit was dedicated to the school.
My brother was a masterful teacher with methods honed by years of working with students in the classroom. He was rightfully proud of all that he had learned about how students learn best. Many of his students returned years later to thank him for his contribution to their lives.
But I came into his classroom thinking I knew a few things about teaching myself. After all, my mother was a teacher for 20 years in the public school system. My late wife was a teacher for LD and BD students at a high school, and later moved to a preschool where she taught Pre-K.
For an hour I led my brother’s classroom in a lecture and discussion. Only it was more me talking than them. By the time the hour was over, exhaustion had taken over. I was spent.
My brother issued a soft chuckle and told me to sit down for the next class. “Let me show you how it’s done,” he whispered. From that point he opened discussion with a few questions and let the students talk. He responded to their answers with even more questions. My brother only talked when necessary for instruction. The kids were learning through their own impetus and eagerness to learn.
There’s an art and a science to teaching. Some of my best friends served as teachers in a nearby public school system for 30 years. One of them earned the State Teacher of the Year Award. Another earned the Golden Apple award from their district. They both taught in the same school, often side by side, working with 4th graders. Their teaching methods were a combination of curriculum-guided instruction and well-considered creative learning strategies. They were the best imaginable teachers.
They recently retired a bit frustrated by how little control they had over their teaching methodologies. Federal programs like No Child Left Behind left them “teaching to the test” rather than teaching kids to learn.
Ready for life
My late wife taught at a Christian preschool that focused on the importance of socialization for the child. That started as young as two years old and continued all the way through the Pre-K program where children learned the basics of being ready for school. In other words, that foundational learning perspective was about much more than the classroom. It was teaching kids about how to be ready for life.
We’ve all seen those memes where people claim “Everything I need to know about the world I learned in kindergarten.” Respect others. Share. Don’t pick your nose in public. Right. And so on.
So it distresses me when I hear people attacking teachers like they’re lazy or earn too much. Because what’s more important, paying a teacher a fair wage for 12 hour days (and that’s typically a minimum) or paying some pro baseball player $20M a year when he has a lifetime 116-67 pitching record. Those are real facts. The dude hasn’t even won twice as many times as he’s lost and he’s being paid $20M a year.
Value of teaching
Teachers perform such vital functions for society. And yes, there are bad teachers out there. I’ve had a few of them, including one who told me that I’d fail his class because a cross country runner like me had once accidentally spit on his shoe during a race on campus. “You’re going to have a tough time in this class,” he warned.
Bad apples are everywhere. They can damage people. But that’s the point here. Only by recognizing and rewarding the best teachers can we encourage the best types of individuals to enter the classroom. Because teaching is about more than the classroom. It’s about knowing how to learn first, and then sharing that with others.
As I learned while standing up in front of that classroom years ago, it’s not about hearing yourself talk. It’s about hearing what others think, and helping them do more of that. Teaching is about far more than the classroom, and it seems like too many Americans have never learned that lesson at all. Now that I’m out giving talks about my book, it is important to remember that people don’t only want to listen. They want to be heard as well. Often the important discussions take place after the real teaching is through. Because teaching is about more than the classroom.
The art of living
A year ago I was invited to teach one of those live painting classes where wine is served and people copy another artist’s work. Rather than choose some cheesy image I insisted we paint copies of the Andrew Wyeth painting known as Christina’s World. The people in the class started to freak out because it looked so austere and difficult. The panic got worse when I told them to first coat the canvas in bright red paint. Then we scuttled it over in green. And things turned brown. With the addition of a thin glaze of yellow the canvas started to look like a grassy hill. And that’s when the lights went on in all their heads.
We moved from a moment where everyone thought they would fail to a point where everyone knew they could succeed if they took a risk and followed along. By the end everyone had created a passable image of the Wyeth painting and more than one commented, “I never thought I could do this.”
That’s the real role of a teacher in this world. Helping people achieve things they never thought possible. And that’s the right kind of pride.
Christopher Cudworth is the author of the book The Right Kind of Pride on Amazon.com, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and meeting life’s challenges with practical and inspired purpose. This blog is in keeping with the philosophies of that book. Please give this a FOLLOW!