Wednesday, November 19, 2014

In Reply to a Former Student

Dear Ethan,

Sorry it’s taken so long to get back to you-- your letter has been sitting by my laptop for several weeks, but I have been waiting for a time when I had the time to compose (and revise!) a thoughtful reply.

First, I’m really pleased to hear that you are writing in your spare time, and it’s even better news that you feel passionate about it. You were reluctant to write much last year, but when you did, it was always interesting and creative. I’m curious about what made you start writing more in your spare time. What kind of things are you writing? I hope you’ll elaborate more on that in future letters.

You asked me about my thoughts on improvement, and so I decided to apply the question to something we have in common-- school. Our roles here are different, but to me, teaching and learning can never be mutually exclusive. No matter what I may be doing in my classroom, if my students are not learning, can I call my actions "teaching"? Even if I'm trying really, really, really hard to teach, without that learning thing, I'm not quite hitting the target, am I?

There’s an old joke that kind of explains what I mean:

Two guys are walking their dogs down the street and one guy says to the other, “Hey, did I tell you I taught my dog to whistle?”

“That’s amazing!” says his friend. “Let’s hear him do it!”

“I said I taught him,” the first man replied. “I didn’t say he learned.”

So what is teaching then? Where's the metaphor that best describes it? A proverb that is often mentioned is Teaching is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire. I kind of like the image of igniting that passion for learning in the hope that it will continue burning after you’re gone. It seems to put all the responsibility on the teacher, though. What’s the student’s role?

After some serious thought, the adage that I currently favor to explain my philosophy of teaching is this one: When the student is ready, the master will appear.

Public school teachers, though, can’t choose our students, and we can’t change them, either, so what do we do if they are not ready? With apologies to Batman, how can we be both the master they need and the master they deserve?

One way is to recognize that a master takes many forms. It may be a book or a poem, another student, a project, or an after-school activity. Even if we are not personally the masters they are ready for, we can help our students to find the masters they need by giving them lots of opportunities to think.

So, what about you, Ethan? Where do you fit in? You asked me how I thought you could improve, and here’s what I think: Start by being aware of all those opportunities; don’t dismiss anything as boring or irrelevant before you’ve given it a chance.

My advice to you is to be ready for the master in as many situations as you can.
Take Care,

Ms. S.

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