I’ve been thinking about teaching. Thirty years on. And I have decided that some of what I have done over three decades in the classroom was misguided. Not all, mind you, maybe not even most, but some.
I remember my first year of teaching. It was a boarding school for students who had not done well in traditional schools and whose parents could afford to pay an astronomically large amount of money to have their children, in effect, tutored for the entire school day. I taught one student at a time. I taught Latin to students with dyslexia and similar learning challenges. If you can imagine that.
The headmaster was a piece of work. What is it about school administration that attracts megalomaniacs? The nadir for me was the day that I had to serve what was equivalent to a two-hour detention because I had not attended the dedication of the school’s new gymnasium. A close second was the faculty meeting during which he rebuked a math teacher and me because he did not like the way we were sitting in our chairs. Sigh.
But he did say something once that I have not forgotten. He was talking, I think, about having asked one of my colleagues to teach out of her field. She agreed to do so because, she said, “I am a teacher, after all.” He loved that. I’m sure I rolled my eyes.
Today I understand better what she meant.
Here’s a bit of heresy: The substance of what we teach young people is almost inconsequential. You like social history? Go for it. Excited about neuropsychology? Whatever floats your boat. Fascinated by baseball statistics? Okey dokey.
The particulars of what we teach just don’t matter much. I spent four years studying Latin in college and could not understand the Latin in which my diploma was written. I have no memory at all of any detail from any lecture by Anthony “Erudite With a Capital E” Grafton (only that he spoke in complete paragraphs) or the redoubtable John Fleming (only that he liked and repeatedly borrowed my Timex watch, because it had Roman numerals). I do remember that I looked forward to every one of Art Hanson’s classes on Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, and that I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when Jim Zetzel, with whom I spent a semester reading Horace’s Odes, stopped me on the street at the end of the semester to tell me, in essence, that I had crushed it.
So I’ve been toying around with what makes for inspirational teaching. Because that’s what it’s all about, in the end. We’re trying not so much to get a student to say, “Okay, I understand this,” as we are trying to get them to shout, “I want this.”
Here’s a stab at some principles of inspirational teaching:
- Teaching that inspires students engages their emotions.
- It challenges and takes risks.
- It makes at least some use of narrative.
- It invites students to meet on unfamiliar ground, as coequals in a quest or a journey of discovery.
- It offers them glimpses of knowledge still unexplored and even shrouded in an air of mystery.
- It insists on an unstinting respect for the shared endeavor to learn.
- It suggests that nothing is not connected to something bigger, something more comprehensive than itself.
- However much it relies upon humor, it is serious about the crucial importance of what is being taught.
- It notes and, whenever appropriate, celebrates student achievement.
- Finally, it rejects an approach to teaching that is merely transactional, as if teacher and student were no more than machines exchanging information, and embraces instead the messy, imperfect, sometimes frustrating but honest and meaningful relationship of one human being to another.