Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Dream

I dreamed about teaching last night. Normally, I do not remember my dreams and, if I do, they are weird snippets that make no sense. Last night was different.

I dreamed that I flew to Arizona (not sure why it was Arizona) for a teaching conference with about 25 other college professors. At the end, one of the participants challenged the group to write down on a sheet of paper what we each believed was the secret to good teaching. In my dream, I wrote down “you have to care enough about your students that you are willing to force them to prepare for every class.” And, I woke up.

I am not sure what I would have written down in real life but it could not have been better than what I wrote down in that dream. I do not think you need to love your students but I do believe you should care about them – even the ones who occasionally drive you crazy. For a short period of time, about 14 weeks twice a year, a small piece of each student’s future is in your hands. Where they go and what they do for the rest of their lives will be influenced ever so slightly by the way you teach that class. To ignore that reality is to abdicate the responsibility you accepted when you chose to become a teacher. I think it is hard to be an excellent teacher if you are not willing to acknowledge that you have the capacity to change lives. I have 81 students this semester. I have had over 6,000 students in my career. At times, it is easy to think of each one as just another brick in the wall. But they are not. They are unique individuals who will go on to have lives and careers. Each one is affected differently by you. The last one is as deserving as the first one. I want to make those lives and those careers a little bit better. If you do not care about your students and how you will change them, why would you do all of the work that it takes to become a good teacher?

And, of course, if you have read this blog or my other writings, you know that I am obsessed about student preparation. If students walk into class having properly prepared themselves, great things can (and probably will) happen every day. Conversely, if students walk into class with no real preparation, Socrates himself would have very limited options. Students are humans. They rarely do work without proper motivation. From kindergarten until the moment before they walk into your class, they may never have had to prepare for any class on a daily basis. They are well trained in not preparing. I think our school systems do a pretty good job but class preparation is not always a priority. So, you have to address the real questions: Am I going to insist on my students being prepared each day and, if so, how will I do that? Will I do it with carrots or will I do it with sticks?

I would bet those two questions are rarely ever considered by most teachers. However, even in my dreams, I have come to believe that these questions form an essential juncture in what a teacher is able to accomplish. James Thurber was a wonderful humorist who wrote short stories and cartoons about 60-70 years ago. In 1939, he concluded: “It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.” Maybe, in teaching, we worry too much about getting specific answers and not enough about asking the right questions.

Here is my question for you today and, believe it or not, it is based on the dream I had last night: Do you care enough about your students that you are willing to force them to prepare for every class?

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