Tag Archives: teacher

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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The Passionate, Multi-Dimensional Teacher

I really was quite stunned by the question the parent asked me in polite dinner conversation a few years ago: “So what are you working on?” I looked at her and hesitated. Did she mean the lesson plan on the Punic Wars I was revising? Did she mean the unfinished grading that lay at home? Was she really interested in where I was in revising my AP World History syllabus to pass the Audit? I really was not sure if she was querying me on my work at school as the teacher of her son or if she was truly interested in the other parts of my professional and intellectual life.

Having worked at a boarding school for twenty years, I can say with authority that the pace of the work week at such a school is very challenging and exhausting. I can recall a number of sixteen-hour days: academics, bus ride, sport event, another bus ride, chaperoning. When school is in session, it is certainly difficult to find time to do anything but school-related activities. However, it is exceptionally important that an educator stay in touch with the wider world and possess outside interests, activities, and—most important—passions.

First, by keeping abreast of what is happening in the outside world, the teacher can make the lessons more current and relevant to the students. As a history teacher, this is especially important. For example, in discussing terrorism today, I used a recent article on a policy statement by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to address the question of violating another country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty to capture or kill a terrorist. While staying current on the news is very important and useful to a teacher of the humanities, I would argue it is nonetheless important also for teachers in other disciplines to remain current. Not doing so may result in missed opportunities for reinforcing points in the day’s lesson.

Second, I think it is important to demonstrate to students that a teacher is not a one dimensional person. A teacher is a real person with many different dimensions. In my case, I as a teenager certainly viewed my teachers as a type of living being apart from normal humans, in a separate and somewhat unique category.

Third, while I want them to remember the similarities between the Western knight and the Japanese samurai, I am much more interested in showing them what it is like to be truly passionate—about such things as learning, sharing a sense of responsibility for their communities, and excellence on the sports field. In my experience, Mr. Barakat, a high school history teacher and coach, not only showed his love of European History, but—more so for me—his passion for basketball. After we lost a game by not listening to his instructions, he fulminated in the lock room, banging the metal wall lockers and screaming until another coach restrained him. One might conclude that he was a lunatic; what I drew from this incident was that basketball was not just a little game to him. He had real passion for it.

As it turned out, the inquiring parent was indeed interested in what I was doing outside of school. This was truly a refreshing question, and once I realized her intent, I was flattered and somewhat flabbergasted she actually asked me. Not only parents, but also headmasters and other senior administrators must ask these type questions of the faculty. And they must be genuinely interested in the answers and be ready to offer assistance, if need be, to help the teacher achieve goals beyond delivering the mission of the school. To the extent that a teacher, feeding some passion outside of school, is growing personally and professionally, it is fair to say he/she will be better able to deliver the mission in the fullest sense.

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