Monday, November 16, 2015

On Being a Teacher

I have had these thoughts previously. I have written and spoken about being a teacher previously. It began when I thought about my father, Rabbi Joseph Spector, as a teacher and what he thought about being a rabbi. I have represented his thoughts as follows: “A teacher is the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the voice that encourages, the face that does not turn away.” I wanted to be a teacher, but I have strayed from his guidelines. I have come to think of a teacher as someone who helps others to have questions – that is someone who admits to not knowing or understanding something, who commits time and effort to finding likely explanations, who is open to alternative explanations, and who is willing to examine and re-examine assumptions. Rather than a voice that encourages or comforts, my voice has been more one that challenges and provokes.

Over the years, I have taught philosophy, computer science, educational technology, program evaluation and related subjects. My first and only academic love was philosophy. I recall using that challenging voice to discourage one of the most inquisitive and brightest students I ever had in class. I had marked up, using a red pen, an innovative dialogue the student had written in the style of Plato – this was prior to the advent of personal computers and the Internet. The student dropped the class after receiving my feedback. When I next saw him some months later, I asked why he dropped when he was doing so well. He said that there was nearly as much of my red ink on the paper as his typewritten black ink. I said that was because I thought his work was especially promising and merited as much constructive feedback as I could manage to offer. He said he took it as general criticism and decided he was not going to do well in the course, even though his paper had been graded very highly. I stopped using red ink after losing the most promising student that I have ever had.

I also reflected on why I had been so challenging in my feedback. I thought about several incidents in which I had received challenging feedback from teachers whom I regarded highly. Challenging feedback seemed to work for (or on) me. Perhaps not everyone is like me (it is certainly true that not everyone likes me). Anyway, I have tried to soften my approach of getting students to have questions a bit.

I have also asked many public school teachers in recent years why they became teachers and remained teachers. These were primarily elementary and middle school teachers working in poorly performing rural schools in the southeastern part of the USA. There was a consistent pattern to their responses involving two things. First, they grew up in those communities and wanted to stay and work there – teaching being the most stable jobs available. Second, they had grown to like many of the children and wanted to help them overcome years of neglect in their education and upbringing.

Is that why I became a teacher? Did I remain in this profession for such praiseworthy reasons? [I wish I could say yes, but that would be a lie.] Those questions reminded me of what Bob Gagn̩ told me more than once while working together at the Human Resources Laboratory in San Antonio Рnamely, our job was to help people learn. After retiring from Florida State University and while working at the Lab, Bob and his wife Pat had become volunteer tutors to underperforming and underprivileged children in San Antonio. His advice to me was more than high-sounding words Рhelp people learn; he lived those words even after retiring.

Help people learn … and ‘people’ is an inclusive term that includes oneself.

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