When I consider what it means to me to be a truly effective teacher, I try and first remember what it was like to be a student. Like most teenagers, my education was hardly the dominant concern of my life. I’m not even sure it was in the top five.
All too often, we adults look at our kids and think how easy their lives are: no rent, no children, no bills. But we must remember that being a teenager is tough. They may not have a family to raise or taxes to pay, but they are still discovering who they are and what they want, and that’s no easy job. When we remember this, it is perhaps understandable that their schoolwork can sometimes seem irrelevant to their turbulent lives.
Even now, a teacher myself, holding education and knowledge in the highest regard, I do not recall the specifics of my high school classes. I do not remember how to complete a proof in geometry. Most of what I know of American history, I have learned in the last decade. And I am somewhat shamefaced to admit (although I smile as I do so) that I don’t even remember all the books I was supposed to have read in the very English classes I now teach.
We may not remember the details of our high school experience, but there are some things from those formative years that we remember in such vivid detail, it is as if time has not passed at all. Rarely are they the recollections of facts, formulas, or any tidbits of information. They are far more personal than that. They are the memories of people and self discovery. When we felt overwhelmed with the difficulty of a task, we remember the teacher who had confidence in our ability to rise to the challenge. We remember our pride in accomplishing something we thought beyond us, and the teacher who merely smiled, having known what we were capable of even when we did not. We remember the teacher who grilled us relentlessly, pushing and pushing ever harder. At the time, we thought they were just plain mean, but we think of them now with warmth, knowing only with the passing of time that they did it for us, not to us.
We are lucky if we had even one such teacher. Those are the ones who really taught us, in the truest meaning of the word. It wasn’t just the skills they taught us; it was the skills they showed us we already had. Our mission as teachers is not merely to pour forth information, but rather to draw out potential.
It’s an easy thing to forget, caught up in the day-to-day struggles of lesson plans, grades, and curriculum. But if we take a moment to reflect on the teachers who made a difference in our lives, no doubt we can recall the work we did in their classes, but what we really learned from them was far deeper than anything ever assigned for homework.
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