Students, Teachers, and Know-it-Alls

I came home furious the other day after class. It infuriates me when student teachers, who have barely entered a classroom, profess to already know everything there is to know about reaching and teaching their students. I never lecture to my students, encouraging instead a sharing of ideas and a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking. But there are those who resist even that kind of interaction, who are completely closed off to learning. I’ve been teaching for over a decade now, first as a high school teacher, then as a university professor and I still barely know what I’m doing. How can these college students assume they know it all? How will they deal with the reality of teaching students who could care less what they know? But then, after a cup of tea, I calm down and remember how long it took me to realize I didn’t know much.  When I first started out teaching high school, I thought I was the one with the knowledge and that I would distribute that precious knowledge to my eager students.  Little did I know what lessons I had yet to learn from those very students.

I muddled through my first years of teaching, confident that I was the expert and that my students needed to just listen to me and they would succeed. After all, I had a Ph.D. in English. I was baffled by their resistance but kept plowing ahead on my own. It was in the South Bronx, in one of the worst schools in terms of violence, poverty and drug use among students, that I finally realized what I was doing wrong. One day out of sheer frustration I asked them what they did care about, because it certainly wasn’t Greek mythology. They responded with a litany of their troubles, their challenges, the incredible hardship in their own lives. I told them to forget about writing an essay on the Odyssey. I asked them to write about their own lives and their own stories. The results were miraculous.

Once I stepped off my pedestal and allowed them a voice, my students blossomed. They wrote and filled volumes with their writing. They responded to each other’s stories with profound discussions and deep reflections. They read authors who spoke to their own experience. Every day was a chance to learn from each other. I believe I learned more than anyone else in that room. No longer was I the expert. No longer was I the sole holder of knowledge. Once I recognized their funds of knowledge, their street literacies and their rich experience, we became co-learners in the truest sense.

Finally, by giving up some of my own power and acknowledging theirs, I became truly powerful. I was able to guide the discussions, to help them articulate what they wanted to say, to lead them to deeper reflection through questioning and challenging their thought process. It was amazing and so rewarding. Together, my students and I created our own vision of the world and how we wanted it to be. Together, we created a space of learning and sharing and personal growth.

In all societies throughout history the teacher has been accorded a prominent place.  He is bearer of wisdom, guide and mentor.  But if you look closely at the most revered teachers, such as Christ, Buddha, Mohammed and Krishna, you find that they did not sit on a pedestal and hand out wisdom. They lived among their disciples, sharing thoughts, working beside them, fighting battles, experiencing pain and suffering, begging for alms. They encouraged discussion, pushed their disciples to think independently and to become powerful agents of change. If they had not, their teachings would never have survived, for their students continued to spread those teachings long after the teacher disappeared. Because they had co-learned those philosophies, adapting them to the reality of their time and place, they were able to create their own vision through the ages and keep those precepts alive.

We are all teachers to someone, whether our children, our employees, our patients, our friends, and we are also students who continue to learn until the very end of our lives. Perhaps in my eagerness to share my hard gained experience with my student teachers, I am becoming didactic. It is important to remember in both roles that we need to be open to those around us, to never feel we know all there is to know, and to be humble enough to acknowledge the wisdom of those we seek to teach, as well as those from whom we seek to learn.