Teaching Lessons for Life

Seeing Charlie again, my former history student, who has made it big in the entertainment business, raised interesting pedagogical questions: Should a teacher have goals beyond the conventional content and skills offered by a course, reaching to “lessons for life”? Further, perhaps these are appropriate for a private school, but are they also appropriate in a public school?

It had been 19 years since I taught him U.S. history. So when he was invited back to school to give a lecture to the entire school community, my first question was whether he would he even remember me.

Charlie clearly devoted much time to his talk—funny stories from his days at Portsmouth Abbey, things he has learned thus far in his career, lots of jokes—both planned and improvised. His talk gave way to a hearty and lively Q & A period, and the student body posed many good questions for him. His answers were crisp, honest, and often laced with humor.

I was proud of him for offering a few bits of what I would call wisdom, even though he is still a young man. His central message to the students was: Do not worry about the grades and SAT scores too much. Discover what you love and are good at, work very hard at it, and do not take no for an answer.

Happily Charlie visited the dining hall for lunch. He saw me, immediately approached me, and we had a nice discussion. After some small talk, he made my day. Stunningly he actually remembered a point I made in one of my history lectures. My message which struck a chord in him was that it was OK to question and challenge your traditional religious beliefs. Here was a teacher at a Catholic prep school telling the students to feel free in challenging 2,000 years of church doctrine. This had stuck with him.

As a history teacher I teach lots of content, especially in my AP courses. I teach skills such as evaluating and using historical evidence and crafting good expository essays. But I feel very strongly that I must also teach attitudes and virtues. In all of my syllabi, I identify the main ones, such as:

            . A critical mind: reasoning clearly and recognizing weak logic and poorly developed ideas.

            . An open mind: willing to receive new concepts, ideas, and methods.

            . A motivated mind: desiring understanding and intellectual growth.

            . A confident mind: recognizing the value of his/her own abilities and opinions.

For a student not interested in history, or academics for that matter, a teacher should certainly try to spark interest and motivation to learn the content and develop the skill set the course offers; however, a teacher—in a private or public school—is also wise in not passing up opportunities to offer students lessons for life—wisdom.  This in fact may be the single thing an unnamed, anonymous student may truly glean from a course.



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