Friday, November 21, 2008

If you can read this, thank a teacher....

Have you ever heard the expression, made famous by playwright George Bernard Shaw, “If you can’t do, teach” ? It’s one of those maxims that is so widely quoted, we simply know it, as a culture. And yet, could there be anything more offensive to teachers, who feel driven, compelled and passionate about sharing knowledge ? There is no question that Mr. Shaw most certainly encountered negative teachers in his life. I’m sure that’s also true of the average person. I’ve not only had my share of either poorly equipped instructors to downright hostile ones. I’ve met these teachers in my own days of schooling, and more recently, on my children’s behalf. And yet, too often we let these negative, Napoleon complex, teachers are the ones whom we remember. We often forget the teachers who stayed after school with us, the professors who let us cry on their shoulder in their offices, and the men and women who inspired us to excellence. Sometimes they provided insight into a difficult subject. Just as often, they provided insight into ourselves, challenging us to grow into the human beings had the potential to become.

I can’t possibly name all the teachers who made a difference in my life, but I can share one story that illustrates the depth of knowledge that one professor had. As an Early Childhood Education and Psychology major in college, I took many courses within both disciplines. The lab science requirement for my Psychology degree was entitled “Lab in Experimental Psychology”, though we at Wheaton commonly referred the class as “Rat Lab”. I was assigned two white rats, whom I named Bert & Ernie, in deference to the Sesame Street fans of my future teaching career. Bert was my control rat, and simply fed, was taken care of and existed peacefully. Ernie, my experimental rat, was supposed to learn a variety of activities, including running through a maze that changed daily, and then learning to press a buzzer to obtain food. While my classmates rats all seemed to be the Olympic champions of, quite literally, the rat race, Ernie seemed content to just kind of hang out, look around the maze, maybe dig a bit. Our lab sessions could last anywhere from 20 minutes (for those with gold medal winning rats), or half a day (for mine). At the end of a particularly frustrating lab period, my classmates had left, and Ernie was still meandering around, happy go lucky in his lack of enthusiasm for my grade in the class. I had assumed that Professor Zuriff had also left. As Psychology department head at Wheaton College, I knew he had more important things than watch my directionally and motivationally challenged test subject walk the wrong way, in true Mr. Magoo fashion. Frustrated, angry and impatient, I howled at Ernie, “You stupid rat ! Just ding the bell so we can both leave!”. Out of the darkness of the lab, came my Professor. My cheeks burned red, and I wished that I could simply melt into the floor, like Oz’s Wicked Witch with water poured over her. Instead of berating me, threatening me with a poor grade or even criticizing my technique, Professor Zuriff said both kindly, and calmly, “Ellen, this is just a rat. If you lose patience with it, how will be keep your patience with your students ?”, and then left the room. I was shamed, not by his words, but by his generosity of spirit and insight into my soul.

It goes without saying that I learned valuable lessons that day. I learned to be patient because my ‘student’ simply didn’t understand what he needed to do. But, I learned something more important as well: that a teacher, no matter how laurelled, stayed very late to help me, not by telling what to do by speeding up the process for Ernie to learn, but by simply observing, gaining insight and letting me discover my own lessons. He spoke of relevance to my future, not just with the immediate message of the class. I learned that a true teacher doesn’t simply impart knowledge he wants regurgitated, but wants to know that his students will succeed beyond the classroom in their chosen fields. I learned that a true teacher learns who the student is, and sees each one as an individual, with unique gifts and talents. This one afternoon taught me about the kind of teacher I wanted to become myself.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher, in one form or another. I have taught in traditional elementary school classrooms, been a homeschool teacher, a tutor, a Director of Education and now a Yoga Instructor. While I don’t believe that I will ever achieve the kind of insight that Professor Zuriff taught me, I believe that I can strive for it. He set a standard for caring, excellence and humility that I’ve tried for emulate for more than 20 years. I hope that, if he does look down from Heaven, he will see all that I’ve learned, even in the two decades since graduation. And, I hope he will be proud of the lessons I’m still learning.

I also hope that Ernie, wherever he is now, has finally found that bit of cheese.

Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives. ~ William A. Foster

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