Thursday, May 31, 2012

On the Other Side of the Desk


Occasionally, someone will ask me to give them my number one piece of advice for becoming a better teacher. Teaching is such a complex art that I really think that is close to impossible. However, I do think there is one thing that every teacher (and I do mean every teacher) should do that will help them immediately to become a better teacher. Can you believe it? I’m almost guaranteeing you success with just one piece of advice.

Every teacher should get a reality check by enrolling as a student each year in a class in something about which they have no real knowledge. In other words, they should walk around to the other side of the desk and put themselves into the student role just as a reminder of how it feels to be the struggling one. I don’t mean for a history teacher to take another history class. There’s no benefit. I don’t mean for an English teacher to take a class in poetry. I mean for a history teacher or an English teacher to take a class in quantum mechanics.

Two weeks ago, I started a class in tai chi. For those of you who do not know, tai chi is a moving meditation.

I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is patient.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is willing to answer even the dumbest question.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher always repeats the movements slowly until we all catch on.
I cannot tell you how happy I am that my teacher is a kind person and a very good teacher.

I am not athletic. I have never had a good sense of body awareness. For me, this class is a real challenge.

The teacher will make a small movement that looks ever so easy when he does it. He does it without any strain or thought. Then, I’ll try to make that same slight movement and just cannot get it right. Suddenly, his simple has become my complex.

He doesn’t make fun of me. He doesn’t roll his eyes at me. He doesn’t imply that I’m a loser. He doesn’t call on a better student to show me up. He doesn’t become frustrated or impatient. He gently takes my hands in his and he moves them for me to show me what I am supposed to be doing. And, sure enough, when he leads me through it enough times, I can do it. And, I have this wonderful sense that I have managed to accomplish something. I’m excited and ready to learn more. I always leave the room feeling better than when I walked in. But, really it was the teacher who had the success more than me.

I believe that there should be a law that every teacher has to take one class each year that is out of that person’s comfort zone. I think the quality of teaching in our world would automatically get better if we all did that.

We all get so settled into the teacher role that we really lose track of what it is like to be the student. It is awfully hard to be a great teacher if you don’t understand what it feels like to be a student.

Okay, there it is -- there's your one piece of advice.   You can take it or leave it.   However, don't ignore the advice and then tell me that you want to become a better teacher.  

This is not new advice from me.   A few years back I wrote a teaching tips book and in one of those essays I talked about my habit of taking classes just to remind myself of what students experience in my classes. Here’s what I said at that time.

“Recently, I took a class on large-format cameras. Five of us were enrolled. This group took photographs for one entire day. I worked to replicate every step demonstrated by the teacher. The film was developed overnight so that we could discuss the results. On the following day, the teacher started class by saying, ‘Four of the film packs came out great but, for one, every picture was blank.’ It was my pictures that had been ruined; I felt so dumb.

“The following week, I taught my own classes with more patience and care. Many students face such heavy frustrations almost every day; their confidence is shaken constantly. Understanding the student perspective can help as you organize a class. How long has it been since you took a course, especially one where your knowledge and ability were strictly limited? Occasionally, feeling lost is a good position for a teacher.”

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