Thoughts on Starting School Again

After having my wife at home all summer vacation, I’ve been going through withdrawal this week as she’s been attending teacher in-service training in preparation for starting another school year. While she’s been away, I’ve tried to busy myself with a writing project that deals with education. Those two facts have set my mind to thinking about school. I have mixed feelings. Having spent 19 years in the classroom myself and another 11 years as a textbook author, I sort of miss the classroom. But then I see all the preparations my wife has to do and all the meetings she has to attend, some lasting past my bedtime, and I reconsider!

That said, in this blog post, I just want to offer some quotations, food for thought about education. Enjoy!

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“Learning is life’s greatest game–it is not work.

Learning is a dessert–it is not a vegetable.

Learning is a reward–it is not a punishment.

Learning is a pleasure–it is not a chore.

Learning is a privilege–it is not a denial.”

(Ladies Home Journal, May 1963)

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play IS serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

(Fred Rogers)

“A parent gives life, but a parent gives no more. A murderer takes life, but his deed stops there. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

(Henry Adams)

“There are three great questions which in life we have over and over again to answer. Is it right or wrong? Is it true or false? Is it beautiful or ugly? Our education ought to help us to answer these questions.”

John Lubbock

And my favorite:

“I am firm in my believe that a teacher lives on and on through his students. I will live if my teaching is inspirational, good, and stands firm for good values and character training. Tell me how can good teaching ever die? Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

(Jesse Stuart)

Best Lessons from Worst Teachers

Sometimes the best lessons one can learn come from the worst teachers.

Sounds ironic, doesn’t it?

As I recall the teachers I’ve had, from first grade through graduate school, however, I think that statement is absolutely correct. I’ve learned some of the most valuable lessons about how not to teach from teachers who taught incorrectly. (The bad teachers will go nameless in this blog!)

Knowing the subject matter is critical for any teacher. Students gain confidence and respect for a teacher who “knows his stuff.” But knowledge alone is insufficient. The teacher has to possess far more than mere knowledge. He or she must love the subject, and that love will come through to the students as enthusiasm, energy, vitality. The teacher must love the students, which means holding them to high standards of conduct and performance, making them work and exert themselves, and encouraging them to stretch their minds.

But an effective teacher must also know what he or she does not know and admit as much. Many teachers, when asked a challenging question, tried to muddle through an answer, hopeful that they would give the impression that they knew when really they didn’t. Apparently, such teachers thought that if they didn’t at least sound knowledgeable, the students would lose respect for them. Often, such teachers were evident by confusing, convoluted “answers” filled with a lot of meaningless jargon.

In fact, students respect a teacher who will openly admit that he or she doesn’t know an answer–but who works to find the answer and report back to the student what he or she has learned. A successful teacher is a perpetual student. No one ever knows it all about anything. Anything.

A successful teacher who is continually learning his subject matter will be eager to share that learning with the students. And that enthusiasm is contagious. An adage about writers is “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” One could paraphrase that for teachers: “No enthusiasm in the teacher, no enthusiasm in the learner.”

We’ve no doubt all known teachers who just went through the motions. They came to class every day dragging their feet and dreading every moment in the classroom. They took advantage of every break away from students. They showed no desire to enhance lesson plans, lecture notes, and learning activities, preferring to do the same things year after year after year. They seemed to be putting in time until they could retire.

I once had a history teacher who often got so lost in his own world of history that he seemed to forget where he was. He sat behind his desk as he lectured. Sometimes he stared out the window, and we could see in his eyes that he was in a world far away, perhaps in ancient Egypt among the pyramids of the pharaohs. Suddenly, he stood up like a rocket being launched, raised his voice, and uttered some profound statement (maybe about those pyramids or pharaohs). Then he walked slowly around the room, continuing to lecture calmly.

Lecturing from behind one’s desk is not necessarily the best way to keep a class of high school students awake, but that teacher showed how deeply involved one could get in the subject he loved. When we saw Mr. Lakin staring out the window with that far-away look in his eyes, we knew that he loved (and lived) history and was lost in the past. He wanted us to catch that vision of the past, too. I don’t know about my classmates, but I did. When he stared out the window and saw Egypt, his verbal description took me with him, and I saw those same pyramids.

Mr. Booher had problems knowing how to deal with junior high class clowns, but he taught me a love for geography and map work through his quiet, knowledgeable encouragement of my efforts. But his lack of classroom discipline also taught me to set a standard of conduct early in the year and then stick to it consistently. I learned from his example that a teacher can always relax classroom rules if the students prove they can handle such freedom, but it’s well nigh impossible to “crack down” once one has permitted lax behavior to become the norm.

I also recall many teachers whom I saw come to class with only the textbook in hand, and I saw them go home in the afternoon the same way. No homework papers to grade and return to students. No lesson plan book. No extra materials brought from home or the library to share with the class. No interesting object lessons.

For some reason, the coaches were notorious for this. Many such teachers “taught” by simply assigning problems or readings to be done during the class hour while the teacher looked through Time or The Sporting News. They had us students grade our papers in class so they wouldn’t have any work to do after school or when they got home that night.

I had one math teacher who began every class by assigning a set of problems and then spent most of the class period smoking in the teachers’ lounge. Was it any wonder that the boys in the class got into trouble? No one but the teacher was surprised when they jury-rigged the door to open only with great difficulty for a week and then rigged it the next week to open too easily. The teacher, having acclimated herself to exerting great effort to open it that first week, nearly injured herself the next week when the door suddenly flew open with ease.

A few teachers, however, were always bringing something interesting to class. Their arms or book bags or briefcases were bulging with things they wanted to share with us. They believed in “teaching beyond the textbook,” in sharing with us some of the things they had discovered on personal trips or in their private reading. Quite often, the things brought in had nothing to do with the day’s lesson, but it was something extra that the teacher wanted to share, and it whetted our appetite for learning. A hornet’s nest. A geode. A thingamabob or a dowhichit. It was like “Teacher’s Show and Tell.”

It doesn’t have to be great, fantastic, earth-shattering things; it can be little, simple things. An old photograph with a story behind it. An old newspaper clipping. A letter from a soldier during the war. Or even a gun or bayonet (back in the old days when that was allowed) brought back as a war souvenir. An interesting story from an eccentric character. Or a short selection from Paul Harvey’s The Rest of the Story.

One can learn important lessons from even teachers with bad practices. But it’s always refreshing to learn from a teacher who does it right.

Teachers, Students, and Aging

It was just another group photo posted on Facebook. The group was so large and the figures so small that individuals were almost unrecognizable to anyone who had not been present when it was taken. But it got my attention and produced a flood of memories. It was a photo of the students in a school where I had taught junior high history.

UBCS student bodyUncharacteristically, I posted a simple statement that it would be nice to hear from some of my former students, with whom I had lost contact after more than thirty years and two interstate moves. I soon got responses from several of those former students. They filled me in on where they and other classmates were, what they were doing now, how many children they had, etc.

Suddenly, I felt old. I envisioned these people as I had last known them. Skinny, short, and gangly boys who had not yet finished their early-teen growth spurts or recognized the need for good grooming and hygiene. Taller, more physically developed girls who were awakening to boys as more than mere rude, prank-prone, and inconsiderate male classmates and were themselves becoming young ladies obsessed with their outward appearance. All good kids. Some good scholars with great promise.

Yet, as I read the responses to my query, I slowly realized that they were now adults with children of their own–children who are older than their parents were when I taught them.

But as I learned of what my former students had become, I realized that I had been privileged to play a small part in their transformation from junior high kids into mature adults. Several of them related things they remembered from my classes. A few even admitted that I had helped cultivate in them an appreciation–and, in some cases, even a love–for history. And that made all of my efforts and sacrifices worthwhile.

Jesse Stuart, one of my favorite authors, said it so well: “I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.”

Thank you, all my former students at UBCS, for the fond memories and the reminder that a teacher’s work is never in vain.