Teaching and learning for the rest of us

At Teaching in Alaska Joe writes:

I have said for 30 years now teachers are born. We will never be able to “Teach” a non teacher the art of teaching. In Alaska this is true to even the most non observant individual. Oh sure we can teach them all the tricks of the trade, word walls, phonic instruction, whole language. how to create learning stations, “Excell” Hahaha, and so on. The thing is if you do not have the presence, the command of your emotions, humor in a flash, the ability to laugh at one self, the ability to hold your class in the palm of your hand, well….. The students world wide especially in Alaska know the condeners from the pretenders. Folks, Alaska needs the best of the best!!!!! Someone once told me you will not even know how to teach until you have been in the profession for ten years. I will take it one step farther, if you were not born to teach you probably never will or should not be trying to. Your heart may be in the right place but this isn’t like baseball. In baseball if you bat 400, and no one has accomplished that in over 50 years, you will be one of the greatest and be the MVP in the NL or Al that year. If you bat 700 in teaching in a year you rot. We need to bat 950 to 999 every year.

I would argue that while there are certainly great teachers in the world – teachers who are remembered fondly for generations, and who not only teach, but inspire – they are rare enough to not bear consideration when discussing an educational system. My parents still talk about their college philosophy professor, Dr. Wood, 30 years later. He was one of those teachers. He talked about his teacher, OK Bouwsma, 30, 40, 50 years later. I was reading an article about him last year. He was also one of those teachers. He Bouwsma learned from Wittgenstien, who wasn’t one of those teachers, but he has a brilliant writer and thinking; I’m not sure how B. managed to translate the experience into great teaching – I have to suppose he was a born teacher. Even B., though – good enough to still affect this chain of teaching and learning more than a generation later – did not bat 999, or anywhere close. People left and never came back. They became frustrated, fell into “fly bottle’s” of the intellect, and finally decided that it wasn’t worth it. Perhaps they failed. Perhaps that was simply not where they were meant to be. Who knows? But even with educated, interested, intelligent students – which he had – it would be unreasonable to expect more than %75 success. Not in the sense of grades, which can go up or down for any number of reasons, but in the sense of understanding – the only thing about education that ultimately matters.

So there are Woods, and Bouswmas – and then there are the rest of us. Those who are not “born teachers,” whatever else we may be. And any school, system, atmosphere, culture, or philosophy that cannot make good use of us is doomed to failure. Certainly there people who should straight-up not teach. Generally they recognize it, and don’t. But then there are the artists who teach, writers who teach, scientists who teach, liberal artists who teach… and these people are mostly the concern of my writing. Because a non-teacher should just leave, and a Teacher will teach alright no matter what – but a liberal artist may teach just fine in a decent environment, and terribly in a bad one

That’s where books come in. Most people aren’t brilliant poets – they can’t recite like Homer. I don’t doubt but that it would be a better, richer, more important experience to listen to Homer recite than to read the Iliad – but the fact is that we can read the Iliad whenever we so choose, whereas we cannot hear Homer under any circumstances whatever. And the Iliad is better and more important than a regular – or even quite gifted – person reciting epic poetry of his or her own.

That and historocity are why reading and books are essential to education. If a teacher isn’t that great, but we’re reading Dostoyevsky, it is not and cannot be a complete loss. I still get to read Dostoyevsky, perhaps discuss him, perhaps write about him, perhaps understand him a little better than I would have on my own – or at the very least perhaps read something of his that I would not have on my own. There cannot be a teacher so bad as to utterly ruin The Brothers Karamazov – though surely there is one so good that it explodes from the page, and changes how I think about humanity forever. And yet somehow there are teachers – and systems, and educational environments – so bad as to make D. incomprehensible through sheer lack of words and grammar. And that’s terrible. As much as anything – and there are a lot of things – I believe that what has gone wrong is conveying not just process, but rather the desired result, to be the acquisition of an assortment of skills. I can’t remember the six traits, or grade with a rubric of them, nor do I necessarily understand the tone and character of my writing. But I can read and write about books. And more importantly, I can be delighted when Alyosha reconciles with the decomposition of his Elder, and kisses the very ground in love of Creation; and I can love Dimitri like a friend – an irresponsible, undisciplined, but charming and lovable friend. And a teacher may bring that out, and make it shine – or he may make me bored, and convince me that he would not give even an onion to an intellectual beggar – but if the content is good, and I can read, then that can be put up with.

It would be very good to meet a teacher who can make math shine with wonder that outweighs the drudgery of solving equations, the way Victor Hugo is worth trudging through sewers and Waterloo for. But, lacking that, I suppose I could find a very good book, and perhaps an interested friend, and learn it anyway.

But at TLT – those kids can’t read! They can’t read Victor Hugo, or Homer, or Chaucer well enough to see a glimpse of eternity reflecting out of the pages. And I certainly can’t explain what they’re missing. If I could I would be writing such glimmering prose. And that’s terrible! I can’t make up the differece – I’m not a Teacher, nor a Poet, nor an Artist. But if someone can read, then we can talk about what’s in there, and why it’s important, without my having to be. And therein lies the tragedy of a partial education. What does it mean to be able to read just well enough to find Shakespeare boring, so that a Teacher has to come along and shake you out of it – inspire, cajole, tempt, inspire, get you in the palm of his hand? It’s like being tone deaf – to hear music as noise, and not as joy.


3 thoughts on “Teaching and learning for the rest of us

  1. Molly is correct, there are many people who teach, but my point teachers are born remains. Teaching someone how to carve a great figure from a piece of wood will not designate them as a teacher. True that individual may teach me how to carve but one hardly can call them a teacher. There are many people who teach many skills and subjects who are fair teachers and yes we need them. They may only bat 600 or 700 and yes they will suffice as the World is a big place. However,I stand by my claim teachers are born. Through the years I have met some great people as Molly mentioned who are in education and yes they are great great artists, writers, poets and so on but…… teachers they were not. The students deserve the individuals who light up a classroom, help mold one’s love for education. The individual who helps guide a student to find their special talent to carve, write, math and so on, that is who we and the students want in the classroom. Oh sure we can be taught how to add 2+2 = 4 by a non teacher or read how to do it on our own. But give me that “Born to Teach” individual anytime. It is he or she that will turn on all the students in the class not just the bright students. The greatest joy I have encountered in my many years of education is reaching the toughest “Nut” to crack. If I can reach him or her I have earned my paycheck for that day. Not everyone will be able to understand much beyond to read the words on the page and yes that is OK. Just teaching some individuals to read is in it’s own right is an amazing accomplishment. As we have seen in TLT some of the young men and women hardly have the ability to even do that when they “Graduate” and that is sad. The reasons why this has happened are many fold and I do not blame the non teachers for this I assure one and all. I have not been in TLT long enough to fully understand what is happening but the children and the village as a whole deserve better then waht is happening!!!!!I congradulate all who have spent even one year in TLT for they have made an attempt to do a little good in the World of TLT. Will they remember us? I am afraid not as the amount of teachers flowing through that village are to numberous to count. But we as individuals will know in our hearts we tried to help even if we only were able to teach a litlle itsy bitsy.
    At least we tried:):):)

    1. I suppose that’s why I had a distinction between teachers – people who teach us things – and Teachers – people who were born to teach. The way I can be an artist simply by virtue of making art, and anyone can make art if they work at it a bit – but that’s not central to my identity; I’m not an Artist the way Da Vinci or Michelangelo or Monet were artists.

      But just as I probably won’t get a painting by a great – or even a really good – artist, though I might, by luck, or effort, or money – I may well not meet a Teacher in the great sense – and perhaps not more than one or two teachers who are good by virtue of having been born to teach.

      But by virtue of having an environment conducive to education as a young person, I didn’t need one; it wasn’t a case of Teaching or nothing. I would maintain that a situation where you need a Teacher teach you how to carve – not simply a competent and diligent woodworker – is a fundamentally unstable situation.

      Perhaps part of the disagreement here is because I’m looking at things from the perspective of a student, and you’re looking at it like a teacher. And as a student, I would not go looking for a Teacher. If anything I might look for someone who really knows what they’re talking about, and abide whatever inconveniences their non-teacher state might fling my way to find out how to do what they do. I could imagine maybe finding an iconographer like that – and if they were willing to put up with me, I’d just follow them around until I understood.

      So I guess… you think about teachers and I think about Students. I wonder if people can be born students as well? I believe they can – sometimes there are people who come from the most unlikely places, and become very well educated. Auto-didacts is the word. I can understand, relate to Students – ones who really want to study, despite lazyness, or procrastination, or conceit, or whatever, because that’s more what I’m like. Otherwise I’m completely at a loss. Maybe because of lack of experience, but something else as well.

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