Thursday, August 30, 2012

Teaching, Teachers, to teach teachers, to teach!

I can't tell you just how many times I have heard Rev. Terry Riley say the title of this blog in regards to his goal for the classes his students are in.  This statement really got me thinking about teachers and the teacher-student dynamic and how, through the years, I have been put in the role of teacher, whether or not I wanted to be there.  It also made me really take a look at the teachers I have had throughout my life and I have come to some interesting conclusions (all of them my own, of course).

Teachers, like nurses and other medical professionals, are a pretty special group of people.  To be an effective teacher takes an extraordinary combination of compassion, will, people skills, and patience (among other things).  It takes a deeper understanding of the curriculum, as well as a keen eye for the subtleties of learning because, just as no two teachers are alike, no two students learn alike.

For instance, I would be what most teachers call a 'typical' over-achieving student.  I adapt well to most teaching styles and try to take my own understanding of the subject matter above what is required (most of the time).  I learn best through active discussion, but also do well just reading and pondering.  Lecture and note taking are my most hated ways of learning, though.  I find it to be boring and tedious.  Ironically, I find lecture to be my preferred teaching method with discussion afterward.

Those things said, one thing I have found with my own teachers is that the good ones were always open to learning from their students, always offering encouragement and help, while the bad ones preferred to put down and humiliate their students.  It was always criticism, but never constructive.

My third grade teacher was the bad kind.  She was teaching us to write cursive and I, being left-handed, had horrible penmanship.  It's a fact that most of us lefties have scrawling handwriting because (unless we practice like hell) we are not properly taught how to adapt to a right-handed world of writing.

I distinctly remember my teacher humiliating me in front of the class by telling me that the boys had better handwriting and that left-handed people should have to learn with their right hand.  Oh, yes, she said those things to me in the late 1980's!  So, when I went home devastated at what happened and I told my mother, she called the school and had a conference with my teacher.

My mother is a very quiet and mild-mannered woman.  At 5'9" tall, she can be intimidating, but she chooses not to be.  When she met with my teacher that day, she scared the poor woman.  My teacher began the conference putting me down for simply being left-handed and went on from there, until my mother interrupted her in a quiet and waspish voice telling her that I got my left-handedness from her.

After that session, my teacher pretended like I didn't exist, so she also didn't go out of her way to hurt my feelings.  My mother came through like a champ, after that.  So very often, she wasn't supportive of me, but that particular time, she suggested that I take a book off of the shelf and just begin copying it, focusing on my penmanship, going slowly, and finding my best writing position.  She promised to keep in me in pencil and paper if I promised to practice.  And practice I did!!  Now, with the exception of no slant at all, my handwriting is a neat and legible as any right-handed person's.

As a teacher, I learned at the tender age of ten, to adapt to my students.  Yes, I was ten when I was selected to be a teacher's aid for the resource class for handicapped kids.  I was assigned to a girl named Janice who was severely mentally retarded.  Not only did she have learning difficulties, but she also had a severe speech impediment among many other physical handicaps.

Janice and I worked all year on learning shapes, colors, a bit of reading, and numbers as well as improving her speech.  Very quickly I came to love that girl.  While she had so many handicaps, she also loved learning.  From her I learned that it didn't matter how easily it came, it was that the learning came.  I learned that baby steps in learning were just as important as giant leaps.

Even almost 25 years later, the one thing in her learning that sticks out with me was one hard-fought lesson on saying the color 'yellow.'  When we first started, she said 'nano' for the color.  Oh, she knew her colors and knew them well, but she had difficulties saying some of them.  My ignorance of teaching (remember, I was ten) led us both down the road of frustration, but it was because I was not listening to her and adapting my own teaching to her way of learning.  So, after a particularly frustrating class with her, I got to thinking.

Understand, I wasn't frustrated with her, but with myself because I was being ineffective.  I was the 'teacher', so I should be able to work with her on a level and in a manner that she understood.  I wasn't communicating effectively.  It took me a couple of days and talking to the resource teacher to understand what I was doing wrong, but I changed my tactics.  Instead of having her listen to me, I had her watch my mouth as I sounded out the syllables and repeat them.  We worked and worked and worked on the color yellow.  We said it over and over again, day after day for weeks on end.  When we had our last class together, she could say all of her colors, including yellow, with only minor difficulties.  We were both very, very proud at having accomplished this, and for years afterward, if I saw Janice at the store with her mother, we would always hug each other and talk for a few minutes.  She left an indelible mark on my heart for sure and in learning with her, I learned about myself and I learned about teaching.

 So often society wants to label someone who learns differently as someone who is learning disabled.  A person with a short attention span may or may not be able to sit for a three hour lecture, just like someone with dyslexia may read a bit slower or have spelling troubles.  Having close friends and family who have both of these 'disabilities' (and, yes, I use that word loosely), I have seen first hand that it's learning differently, not an inability to learn.

I would let any number of my dyslexic friends do math work for me.  Why?  Because they are genius with numbers and I am not.  I am dumb when it comes to numbers beyond basic calculations.  Dumb.  If I need help multi-tasking, I'm going to someone I know with ADD.  Why?  Because they can do an astounding number of things at the same time and keep up with it all.  I can not.  I do not try to do more than two things at once because I will, often, fail miserably at everything if I do.  So, just how can either of these things be labelled as disabilities is beyond me.  If the written word is a difficulty, lecture and discussion are acceptable options for teaching.  If focusing on one thing for an extended amount of time is difficult, do two things at once like walk and instruct or make something and talk about it.  Or, build a better bridge of learning within the teacher-student dynamic and learn lesson-by-lesson how best to get your point across.

Teaching is never about assuming that everyone is going to be a 'typical' student.  Teaching is about figuring out the best way to capture the imagination of the student and guiding them along in the adventures of learning.

Brightest blessings my friends!