November 20, 2006

It's what they learn?

As I now reflect back on my first university level teaching experience I begin to realize that its not what we teach that is important, moreover its what the students learn. What I mean is that as teachers we can plan the best lessons, the coolest examples, and the most innovative activities, but in the end, all our manufactured efforts may have no impact at all on our students. I’ve decided that the most important gift we can give, and as teachers, the most important lesson we can teach, is to share our enthusiasm for learning, and our passion for our subject matter.

Now, this may chill some of you right to the bone because you may be thinking, “wait a minute, I don’t have any passion for my subject matter. The best enthusiasm I can muster on a daily basis is to actually get to work on time.” Fair enough. But there is more to teaching then designing the world’s greatest lesson plan, or the most thorough and exact to-the-standards assessments. Teaching is about sharing the joy of learning, and the thrill of addition, spelling, and decoding.

Something special happens in my classroom(s). I still can’t quite put my finger on it exactly. Most kids who call me “teacher” and now most adults who call me “professor” and perhaps even some of you readers whom I’ve never met are changed by the time we spend together. My hope is that you would be encouraged to continue on in the pursuits that make your life a wonderful experience.

To me, teaching is not about the stuff of the classroom, it’s about the changes that individuals make as they discover who they are and realize what they are capable of accomplishing. In effect, its not about what I try to teach, but about what they learn from me whether I am trying to teach that or not.

Over and over I have returning students tell me about what they learned from me in my class that had nothing to do with the curriculum, and that I had no intention of teaching. How do you control that? You can’t. Our students pick up right away on who we are and why we are there. They can spot a phony in a minute and when they do, they tune-out and often drop out. Are you losing your students? Or are you fighting to hold onto them on a daily, hourly, moment-to-moment basis. If you can tell that your students are not paying attention, not engaging in the lesson, not learning from you, then the place to start looking for answers is not the students, but YOU!

Now that I’ve spent some time working with baby teachers I understand that almost everyone who is drawn to teaching does so out of a genuine desire and need to help others. This is a good thing. But not all teachers come equipped with the dynamic personality, or the broader understanding of what it takes to really capture the interest of the students, and then hold them there for 55 minutes while you pour knowledge into their brains.

Some of the students I taught were naturals. They no more needed me to teach them how to teach then they needed their parents to teach them how to breathe. The just did it, and they did it with ease, grace, and precision. Other students were not so well prepared. Not that they couldn’t be, they just needed some help.

I tried to cover all of the material that the university asked me to share with the students, I gave the required assignments, and I showed up ready to fill each and every session with important and worthwhile experiences for these growing instructors. Did my efforts help those who needed this type of guidance? I’m not sure; time will tell.

I believe that I made the most progress with those who really needed my attention through private conversations that occurred before, after, and during session breaks. It was at these times that I could be approached privately. Students came to me with their questions and concerns and I tried to pass on my sagely wisdom. I answered as honestly as I could and when I didn’t know the answer I said so. Even though I tried to teach the syllabus, the students drew from me what they needed to learn.

I believe it is not the subject matter but the person, the teacher, in the classroom that lights up a student of any age’s imagination. Being genuine with students is important. Being honest about who you are and what you care about shows students that they can trust you and that are worth listening to. Once their hooked, you can teach them any subject matter you want. And while you’re teaching the reading, writing, and arithmetic, maybe you can throw in a story or two about that starts, “When I was you age…”

Storytelling is one of the most basic methods of teaching (and one of the most fun). As we share our life’s experiences we cannot control exactly what the students learn from us because we have no control over what they need from us. However, we can use our experiences to engage our students and control their focus. Once we have their attention, the most important thing we can share with our students is our passion for learning. Once they have that, everything else is easy.

I still haven’t figured out the chemistry of the snake oil that makes everyday in my classroom a special event. But I’m getting closer. True, not all of my students share my enthusiasm for life and learning yet, but the year is still very young.

I wrote these words tonight in a end-of-class email to my university students, now I’ll share them with you: Remember, what you teach your students in your classrooms matters to your students and the world in ways both measurable and immeasurable. Go be the great teachers you are.