Well today was our first day back after what was a relaxing and productive break. Starting up is always difficult, the kids are half dead, and we have a week to review before mid-term exams. It’s a hectic time. As I was packing up to head home todayy two former students who both graduated last year dropped by to say hello. I love it when students take the time to stop by; it’s amusing to me that as much as they are happy to leave for college so many make it a point to return at some point during their first year of college. I guess this means that we are doing something right. Both students were a pleasure to teach as juniors in my survey course in American history. They were both ideal students to teach as they were bright and willing to engage in any kind of class discussion. As with many students you wish they had taken a bit more time on written assignments and other projects, but all in all you know that they are going to be fine in the future.
At a certain point in our talk one of the students mentioned to me that my history course was his favorite while a student. I thanked him for the compliment, but he went on to say that his experience in the course played a large role in his decision to now major in Asian Studies. I have to admit that while I was appreciative of the comment I was just a bit uncomfortable. During my drive home I thought about my former student’s comment and realized – not necessarily for the first time – that teachers exert a great deal of power and influence over their students. From one perspective this is a frightening proposition. While it is easy to think strictly in terms of positive consequences it is also important to remember that we can bring about the opposite often unintentionally and with little awareness that it is happening.
I am very conscious of my role in the classroom. Since my classes are discussion driven it is of paramount importance that I exercise control over what I say and how I say it. There is always the temptation to steer students in a certain direction, especially when they seem to harbor views that are racist, sexist or just plain ignorant. At times it takes a great deal of self control to remember that it is the journey that matters more than anything else. I can only try to develop their natural curiosity in a way that emphasizes skepticism, the importance of perspective, and the humility in knowing that at any point you might be wrong about some of your most cherished beliefs. If I am to teach this I must model it on a daily basis. Good teachers must have a keen sense of ethics in their classroom. It boils down to the basic premise that ultimately teaching is not about you, but the student.
One of the downsides of teaching is that you rarely get a sense that anything you do matters. We don’t get to see the final product. It’s nice to know that once in awhile the formula works.