I don’t want to write this. My students are making me. Well, they’re not making me, but they’re innocent inquiry after I assigned the “This I Believe” essay—“Are you writing one, too, Mr. Ellis?”—is as effective as any Chinese torture method: it made me talk.
My teacher instinct interprets the question as a subversive attack, a way to put the authority figure on the spot—defenseless without a lesson plan or prepared response to fling in retaliation. Must…maintain…control.
The truth is it’s a subtle reminder of what I believe, but fail to remember and attempt to ignore: I learn as much or more from my students as they do from me. Sometimes, it’s a moment of accountability (as in the above example), a reminder that my actions and reactions are constantly under scrutiny. Other times, it’s a lesson on humility or patience. But most often, it’s a question or comment that prompts me to further my education, so that I can effectively further theirs. Robert E. Lee said that “the education of a man is never completed until he dies.” I believe he’s right.
What my students don’t know is that I didn’t always believe this. My passion for literature and language was an acquired taste—similar to ones slow acceptance of vegetables. When I was in middle school, my dad, an avid reader, went as far as trying to pay me to read a book that he thought my younger brothers and I would enjoy. At the time, being a typical social and active boy, I couldn’t understand the benefit of an isolated, stationary pursuit.
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school in Mr. Palmquist’s class that I began to believe in the power, beauty, and pleasure of literature and language. Mr. Palmquist introduced me to the poetry of Walt Whitman through the film, Dead Poets Society. Palmquist and the idealistic Mr. Keating, played by Robin Williams, convinced me that literature and language were ways to “sound my barbaric YAWP,” (Whitman’s notion of the individual’s unique, powerful voice) and experience the YAWP of those before me.
Following the example of Mr. Palmquist and the fictional Mr. Keating, I began sampling what literature offered. I often found that I could successfully clarify difficult texts when studying with friends. The more I understood, the more excited I was to help them understand, too. But rather than ruining their own moment of discovery, I developed a keen ability for asking leading questions that guided them to their own conclusions.
Now three short years into my teaching career, I want to believe part of my role is to pass on that same passion to my students (a daunting task most days), but I also believe my practical purpose is to make them critical and effective readers, writers, and thinkers, so that they are prepared for pursuing whatever passion they choose. During their pursuit, I believe the education process will be reciprocal. They will continue imparting invaluable insights, as long as I remain a willing and attentive learner.
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