Teacher Essay

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A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.

-Horace Mann

Life is a learning process. We strive, we search, we interface and we relate the experiences that become of our endeavors to posterity, for better or for worse. Interactions between teacher and student have evolved over the course of history: Socrates redefined lecture, the Scientific Revolution scrutinized traditional problem solving, and the progressive movement enforced educational reform. But what is that premise, that archetype of sorts that’s more elemental than any curriculum, which permeates this trajectory? I don’t think anecdotes about the classroom contribute much to the question, but hell if I haven’t gotten mixed messages from my own teachers. A teacher doesn’t teach; she guides. No, a teacher doesn’t guide; she inspires. No, a teacher can’t do either of those; she only imparts facts, because the other two imply subjectivity. And we can’t have that, now can we? Everyone is a teacher in some way; that’s every bit as much a law of social interaction as gravity is of physics. And naturally, the best teacher is the one who meets the needs of their student. Therein lies the question: what is it that each student needs? Surely if the student knew, they wouldn’t need a teacher, as they could pursue it themselves and be self-taught. So, a teacher’s ultimate goal is to reveal to their students what it is they must discover about themselves and the world around them. When we see things this way, perhaps we’ll find that guiding and inspiring, as well as informing, are mutually exclusive: each one as germane as the other, and each making the others irrelevant.

A teacher keeps their student on the right path, even if that path is made difficult by knowledge heavy with meaning or tribulations made stolid by hardships. The student’s goal is to grasp, but this is in itself difficult. There are places for which a concept can be gripped more easily and effectively than others, meaning that before learning may occur, there ought to be a strategic line of thought undertaken. Once wielded, that knowledge can be applied in ways that help to form other pieces like it, if only the vernacular link is established. That’s perhaps the most important role of a teacher. Not telling them where to seize the instrument that is knowledge and how to swing it, but coaxing them and affirming their experimentation with its momentum until it can shatter anything. They cannot connect but facilitate those connections, as anything more would be a travesty of true learning. The student is capable of realizing anything they want, and the teacher’s objective is to help them find the ability to realize those things within themselves. When Siddhartha struggled with his Self, he sought many mentors, all of which he rejected because they impressed upon him values that he felt were disingenuous. But in his darkest hour, he found the teacher that he needed most. Not because he was holy and not because he was clever, but because he could listen, and in that receptive silence Siddhartha found the knowledge for which he had been looking the entire time.

But prerequisite even to the ability to learn is the prerogative. Knowledge is power, but it is often indirect and almost always a difficult one. The ability to play the guitar, for instance, was an attractive prospect to me when I took up lessons. That inevitable learning curve, however, dulled my eagerness and made me want to skip to the iconic smashing of the guitar out of frustration rather than true rock star passion. Keeping a student’s attention is one of a teacher’s most difficult tasks. After all, it was Thomas Edison who claimed “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” The problem isn’t getting the student to commit, but to keep that commitment. The ultimate goal of any person is in some way to self-actualize; to reach the pinnacle and capacity of their potential, if there even is a limit. But this, the most potent of goals is easy to lose sight of and its value is often forgotten. And that’s when the student loses sight of the big picture and pursues the more trivial things; attempts to reap the crop without developing the plant from a seed. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes truly immersed and engaged problem-solving as a sort of self-sustained work or “flow” that derives motivation from successful work, and successful work from that motivation. While he describes it as amongst the most genuinely fulfilling forms of activity, he gives insight on why apathy so frequently overwhelms enrichment. “… there is another force that motivates us, and it is more primitive and powerful than the urge to create: the force of entropy.” A teacher must show their student how hollow an achievement is without the full capacity of their effort, and that the endeavor validates the reward, not the other way around.

If ever one tries to define a teacher in a neat phrase, a concise word, then the purport and providence of teaching is dodged entirely. It’s a staple of our society: the origin of every archetypical piece of knowledge, be it quantum mechanics, naturalist literature or the tying of shoe laces. And that’s why it can’t be categorized. A teacher’s value is defined by their students and how they interface with them, and the idyllic teacher’s lesson plan ends by showing the student how little they need the curriculum. A Norwegian proverb says “Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is high.” Teachers will always be there to prod us, to make us expand because there is no stagnation, only expansion and contraction. Life is a learning process, and the only topic of study is ourselves. Class dismissed.

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