From the Teacher's Corner 10:
For the Students
© 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.
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.
sip of his red wine, he smiled and asked me, “Really? Why?”
I echoed the question: “Why?”
why do you teach?”
hesitated. I thought through some common reasons but they didn’t
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.
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.
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
interrogator was out of wine, and I was out of time. I had to say
teach for the students.”
– 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?
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
he said, “That’s the way it should be. I don’t want
nobody running off with my money.”
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
was angry. “They can’t do that! It’s my money. How
come they didn’t tell me?”
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.
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
date for the first exam approached, the tension rose noticeably.
There were office calls and embarrassed questions asked quietly.
don’t know how to study the texts.”
don’t understand things I’ve written in my notes.”
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.
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
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.
“From that remarkably strong
woman, I learned that there are values in education I have too long
taken for granted.”
is not just about learning facts and figures.
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.