Teaching the Teacher

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We've all heard the heartwarming cliche about teachers learning as much from their students as their students do from them. I wondered if there's any truth to it. Because my family is to teaching what the Osmonds are to singing (I'm not sure if there's a tone-deaf black sheep of the Osmond family, but if there is, that's my Mormon analogue), I had the means to find out. Below are slightly edited emails from six of my relatives, all responding to the question, "What have you learned from your students?"

Barry Davis, now retired, formerly a social studies teacher at North Shore High School, Glen Head, NY:

Students didn't teach me about my subject. I knew more than they did or I wouldn't be much of a teacher. My greater knowledge base was a function of my being older and better educated?not necessarily smarter. Rather, students raised the issues, the questions, the challenges that kept me growing intellectually, right up to the end. What I miss most about teaching is the daily intellectual engagement.

In my next-to-last year, I was teaching "Principles of Foreign Policy." The course was based on a game simulation I had invented. We were exploring the Middle East problem (which was much less of a problem than it is now) when I discovered that one of my students was Palestinian. She rejected, out of hand, everything I had to say. She forced me to confront my own knowledge base and prejudices so that I could be fair in dealing with hers.

I already knew more about the Vietnam War, Indo-China, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and Ngo Dinh Diem than anyone else I know, because I had to learn about them when my students demanded that I teach them the facts as I understood them. The specifics changed, but the intellectual engagement remained.

Michael Heimlich, teacher at various Bay Area synagogues' afternoon "Hebrew School" programs and, in the offseason, at remedial summer school at Berkeley High School, Berkeley, CA:

The most obvious way I learn from summer school students is through their unconscious revelations of their cultural backgrounds. They are easily read barometers. When I asked my summer sex-ed class to write a journal entry about why people have sex, more than half of the class included "to make money" in their first few responses.

I believe that the origin of the cliche about learning from students is Pirkei Avot ("Chapters of the Fathers"), a collection of sayings of the rabbis of the Talmudic age. The passage goes something like, "I have learned from my teachers, and more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students."

I find that students often come up with insights and ideas that are new. The author of the quote might have spent more time with his students than his teachers. Most Torah scholars do. When hashing over a story and its meaning, students trained in the interpretive arts will offer unique and compelling explanations. "Torah" means, among other things, "teaching." It is said that each person receives the Torah they need when they examine the stories of the tradition. It's easy to see how such a process can teach a teacher much about where a student is coming from, as well as how to teach more effectively, and about the complexities of the story itself. I don't think math and science teachers get this as often. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if other teachers disagreed with the statement entirely.

Marni Davis, PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in American and Jewish history at Emory University:

I sometimes suspect that this old saw is teacherly disingenuousness. Our culture values teaching and teachers very little, yet teachers are deeply proud of what they do. To display such pride to the public might seem like arrogance. So teachers downplay their own power by assuring everyone else that the classroom is a democratic place, where teachers' and students' opinions on any given matter are equally worthy and valid, and where the learning process is entirely a two-way street.

Maybe this represents a concession to postmodern dismissals of "knowledge." Now I'm as open to poststructuralist critiques of historiography and literary canon as the next humanities/social-sciences graduate student, but a productive classroom environment needs a teacher to know more than everyone else in the room?about everything. My favorite teachers have been enlightened and benevolent despots. We students may have disagreed on occasion with his or her interpretations, and we were encouraged to flex those muscles, but in the end, if we respected the teacher at all, we were mostly sponges. For a good teacher to be swayed by student opinion was an extraordinary event.

What I do learn from students is how to be a better teacher. My students often know next to nothing about American history, but they probably know better than I do what sort of classroom tactics they find most productive. I've given lectures that have totally energized some students and left others completely cold. How could I have gotten through to them, too? I ask and learn a tremendous amount from the ensuing discussions.

Rachelle Davis, retired English teacher, formerly at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School, Plainview, NY:

For 28 of the 39 years I spent in the classroom, the annual high point came while teaching Macbeth to sometimes avid, sometimes reluctant, 11th-graders. I loved teaching that play for many reasons, not the least of which was that every year I learned something new from the students. Sometimes it was a different interpretation of a line, sometimes an indication of how Shakespeare's ideas are still relevant today. There was always something I came away with that I didn't have before.

One March, several of my colleagues were planning their retirement for the approaching June and encouraged me to consider retiring too. I thought about it and heard all the arguments about why it would be a logical move economically for me. When the conversation turned to what we were doing in class and I realized that if I retired I wouldn't have another opportunity to learn something new about Macbeth from my students, I burst into tears. So another thing I learned from my students was that I was not yet ready to retire.

Now that I am retired, however, I'm loving every minute of it.

Lynne Schmelter-Davis, professor of psychology, Brookdale Community College, Lincroft, NJ:

The student body where I teach is diverse in terms of age, ability, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. In my Abnormal Psychology course students need to write and submit a weekly journal to demonstrate their understanding of the mental disorders they're learning about. Reading these journals, I learn (and relearn) how easy it is to miss the strengths that can accompany emotional illness. My students cope with severe mental illness in their families?and even themselves. In any given semester, more than half of my students are taking psychoactive medication and many have had psychiatric hospitalizations they write about. Their diagnoses range all through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and yet they hold jobs, care for their families, come to school and prepare for careers in helping others. They prove that strength in coping, "hardiness"?whatever you want to call it?can outwit misfortune. I've learned how well-developed coping skills can aid us all in tough times and how to avoid focusing on just what's "wrong" with a person and see how much may be "right" with them.

Evan Heimlich, professor of cross-cultural Studies, Kobe University, Kobe, Japan:

I learn a lot from my students about Japanese society and culture, and resist the temptation to take too much class time getting tutored in Japanese language. I depend on a few of my students for weekly help with translation. I get lots of mail through the university administration, and because I can hardly read anything written in official Japanese, I ask my advanced students to tell me during office hours whether or not each piece of mail is important. If I ask them to tell me the subject of the mail, that task tends to prove difficult for them, and slow, so I ask for the subject of only the mails that are maybe important. Almost always, when I hand over a piece of mail, they consult with at least one other student before deciding, "It is maybe not important." One of my colleagues told me she files away every single piece of her junk mail from the administration, out of a sense of duty. But I file each unimportant piece of mail directly into my trash can, which makes my students giggle.

My students' distance from my culture helps me gain fresh insight on it. One student asked whether "Against the Wind" is a happy or unhappy song. Hmm. I had the class debate it. Afterward, I lectured about how that mixed, nostalgic tone was an important theme of Bob Seger's songs, including that ubiquitous tv commercial for a pickup truck that uses "Like a Rock." Bob Seger's rock 'n' roll nostalgia?"I was strong as I could be!? Nothin' ever got to me!"?fit and fed American nostalgia for some version of the nation's own lost youth.

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