If you have been reading this blog, you know by now that I distinguish between “education” and “learning,” valuing the latter more than the former. It’s not that I dismiss the necessity of education for the good of society. Rather, it is because I have been disappointed in the systems and curricula that made up the greatest part of my own “education.” In many ways, except for my work in graduate school, a significant portion of which was self-directed (an M. A. thesis that became a book, a doctoral dissertation that I’m mining for articles), my self-directed learning has been more productive and helpful than the learning I did within the educational systems that I progressed through. If you have read a number of blog posts, you will also know that I focus more on teaching than on teachers and I truly focus on teaching as a complex process of fostering learning, not on teaching as the “transfer of knowledge” from teacher to student. In other words, I focus on learning, more than on teachers and teaching.
Still, during my long years of formal education, I encountered a few teachers who had a particularly significant impact on me and I would like to talk about them collectively. I am not talking about larger-than-life or miracle-working teachers. I generally do not believe in the sustainable reality of “magically effective” or “superhero” teachers, no matter how inspiring they might be in movies. (I’m thinking of Louanne Johnson, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, in Dangerous Minds or John Keating, played by Robin Williams, in Dead Poets Society, Glenn Holland, played by Richard Dreyfuss, in Mr. Holland’s Opus, François Marin, played by François Bégaudeau, in Entre les murs, Arthur Chipping, played by Peter O’Toole, in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Clément Mathieu, played by Gérard Jugnot, in Les Choristes, Jaime Escalante, played by Edward James Olmos, in Stand and Deliver, and so forth.) There do exist fabulously great teachers who can change lives, yes, but most of those who have a real impact on real learners tend to be modest, down-to-earth, human beings struggling to do a good job, not epically charismatic, bigger-than-life, almost supernatural figures. Please note that that’s not to say that extraordinary teachers do not exist. It’s just that I don’t think that the “superhero teacher” a workable model for most folks who decide to teach.
The folks I am talking were extraordinary in some very humble and ordinary ways. They were conscientious and attentive. They were attuned to the body language and the needs of their students. They had genuine enthusiasm for their subject matter. They used humor, empathy and compassion to reach their students. And they focused as much on actual student learning as they did on complying with the prescribed curriculum. In short, they were teachers, yes, but they were also mentors, guides and, in an almost etymological sense, pedagogues. The accompanied learners and taught them more than just facts or specific skills. They helped them to develop as learners. Their attentions where not just on the books, the activities and the syllabi, but also on the learners themselves. They sought to foster learning by helping the students understand how to forge meaningful and lasting connections to bodies of knowledge, how to make their own meaning, discern complexities, uncover patterns, accomplish deeds. And in my case, that meant giving me the freedom to learn my way, instead of forcing me to kowtow to the curriculum.
A small handful ofe teachers, encountered in schools, colleges and universities between the ages of 11 and 20, truly “turned me on” to learning in a number of different areas (science, particularly ecology and entomology, literature, creative writing, history, philosophy, geology, media studies, communications, law). In most cases, it was because the were willing to depart from the “production line” model of moving learners through the system and, instead, engaged me on a human level, helped me understand why some subjects are worth studying, mentored me on ways to succeed within a relatively inflexible educational system and helped me pursue my own interests while doing so. For me, the great teachers who made me want to be a teacher myself were folks who modeled several fundamental human traits. Curiosity. Engagement. Seeing the big picture. A propensity for explaining well and, more importantly, giving good examples. Interest in connecting disparate ideas and data. Empathy with others. Compassion. Flexibility. Enthusiasm. Personal charm. And a willingness to guide and support learners, rather than dictate to them.
Even though I sometimes fall back to the “assembly line” model of teaching, I mostly try to emulate these good folks who helped me so much and inspired me to learn.