Physical Training Sept 2010
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From the Teacher's Corner 10:
For the Students

copyright 2010 Douglas Tong, all rights reserved

Here is my re-telling of a classic story in teaching circles which might provide some inspiration for our teachers out there. It really epitomizes the reasons why we teach. I hope you all enjoy it.

Not so long ago at one of those obligatory social functions, I was superficially engaged in conversation with a rather tiresome creature who inquired as to my profession.
“I’m a teacher.”

Taking a sip of his red wine, he smiled and asked me, “Really? Why?”

Confused, I echoed the question: “Why?”

“Yes, why do you teach?”

I hesitated. I thought through some common reasons but they didn’t seem right. For money? People who teach for money are a small minority – poor, blinded souls who have yet to meet a banker, doctor, or CEO; people who make much more money. For glory? The few who still teach for the glory tend to be young and idealistic – poor, blinded souls who have yet to read the fine print on tenure and promotion. For the opportunity to do research? Maybe; but unless you have a huge number of graduate assistants, objective tests, and no office hours, even the most elementary cost-benefit analysis shows this to be a losing proposition.

My interrogator was out of wine, and I was out of time. I had to say something. “I teach for the students.”

We parted – he for more wine, I to collect my thoughts. What kind of answer had I given? Do I teach for the students? I imagined the sophisticated, tweedy intellectuals among my academic colleagues admitting to such an unabashedly “human” reason. Academics should be objective, scientific, rational. What would they think of such an answer?

But before worrying about them I needed to answer the question myself. Names and facts all flashed through my memory. Suddenly the movie stopped, and I remembered Johnny. I met Johnny early in my teaching career one semester. I was fumbling my way through the course, being inexperienced. Johnny was patient, polite, but insistent. He had to have this course. He was going to be a doctor.

“I have to communicate important messages. I want to learn how to do it right.” The deep-set, blue eyes never wavered. Mine dropped; he had a point. Later, I chided myself for being such a push-over. When would I learn that a student could pretend to be interested in any course if it fell into the right time slot?

My first mistake with Johnny was the assumption that his interest was contrived. It turned out to be all too genuine. This error was compounded by a second. I assumed I knew enough about communication to satisfy the intellectual curiosity of my students. Johnny’s academic appetite was unquenchable. The course had barely begun and he was asking questions I couldn’t answer, raising issues I’d never considered, and reading books I didn’t know. Even my most-reasoned, most articulate reply did not settle an issue. It only made him ask more questions.

I couldn’t help feeling a bit relieved when the semester ended. I didn’t know anything else to teach Johnny. The experience was humbling, and yet there was excitement as well. I was forced to admit that here was a student more dedicated and determined about learning than I had ever been. Here too was a student smarter than I. The discovery shocked me, but once I came to grips with this fact, I was ready to learn something far more important: Students can teach us if we let them.

The pictures in my mind moved again. This time when they stopped I saw Philip – an average student thoroughly convinced of his ordinariness. Yes, he could play baseball, but that was about it. “I’m not much of a student,” he told me, and that pretty much summed up his poor writing skills, his low GPA, and his general disinterest in anything academic. At the end of his sophomore year, Philip had yet to confront an intellectual idea that mattered.

Philip had also yet to confront a teacher who thought he mattered. I treated him like someone special. It wasn’t hard. He was and is a unique human being without duplicate. It seemed like such a simple solution. Philip responded very much like my Swedish ivy when I finally got around to giving it some fertilizer. He started to grow. Philip realized gradually that the nonverbal communication I lectured about in class he actually used when he played baseball. Imagine that! From then on, he continued to grow and flourish as a student. From Philip I learned that teachers have power – a type of influence that can affect and change students.

The pictures continued. I sighed as I remembered Tommy – a black, ghetto kid who used to tell me he did not know ground could be green until he moved to Washington State. Later I wondered if it was a joke. Tommy lived with ignorance. His vocabulary allowed only the most elementary descriptions of what happened in his life. During one of our many study sessions, I was struggling, without success, to explain inflation. We took a break while I tried to brainstorm a better approach. Tommy chatted about the bank downtown where he opened a savings account to keep his tuition for next semester. He was impressed by the size and security of the safe.

“Well,” he said, “That’s the way it should be. I don’t want nobody running off with my money.”

“Tommy, your money is not in that safe.” Feeling the tension building, I began slowly, “Banks are in business to make money. They do that by borrowing money and using it to make money. They’ve spent yours. You’ll get someone else’s when you take yours out.”

The face was angry. “They can’t do that! It’s my money. How come they didn’t tell me?”

“They thought you knew?…” My answer didn’t alleviate his anger. Tommy surprised me. I had never seen the lonely islands of ignorance that still exist in our advanced, civilized society. Most of my time is spent in academia, at higher levels of learning. My usual students are interested in “actualizing” as Maslow says; they want to realize their full potential. Tommy was a good reminder that not all knowledge is a luxury. Some is actually essential. Being deprived of these basic life facts relegates one to the peripheries of existence.

I moved on. I remembered Susan – what the professionals called a “non-traditional learner”. Susan was thirty, married, and a mother who wanted a college degree. For some reason she felt inferior – felt as if she had never accomplished much that mattered, at least to her. Get a college diploma and she would have hard proof of an accomplishment that mattered. It was a noble challenge. Susan had not been near a classroom since high school. She and her husband were struggling financially with a huge dairy farm which meant there was no money for college. She worked a part-time secretarial job in order to pay for her schooling. Being in class was no small accomplishment. For Susan, that was only the first hard step of many.

As the date for the first exam approached, the tension rose noticeably. There were office calls and embarrassed questions asked quietly.
“I don’t know how to study the texts.”
“I don’t understand things I’ve written in my notes.”
Her eyes twinkled but her face was serious. “I tell the cows about what I read in the text. Some of them seem as slow as me.”

On the day of the exam, the anguish was visible. I prayed for her – so much appeared to be on the line. The best turned out to be a C minus – a shaky two points from a D. Susan was in my office when I returned from class. She quietly closed the door and sat down. There was stubborn determination as we painfully went through the test, question by question. Neither of us mentioned the tears that accidentally spilled on that last page.

By sheer gut determination, Susan had made it through my class and she made it through many others after that. From that remarkably strong woman, I learned that there are values in education I have too long taken for granted.

I fought the urge to remember more. It was time to return to the social function. I took a sip from my wine glass and smiled. I could live with the answer – even if it did make me vulnerable, even if it did show others my “humanity”. I realized that I really do owe my students a great deal. They taught me a lot. The debt should at least be acknowledged.

Author’s Post-Script:

“From that remarkably strong woman, I learned that there are values in education I have too long taken for granted.”

Education is not just about learning facts and figures.
And teaching is not just about transmitting facts and figures. A computer can do that.

Or if we apply it to our arts, teaching is not just about “move the foot here” or “hit the guy there”…

Mr. Tong has a Master’s in Education in Curriculum Studies.

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