The comments of two different teachers make the point. The first teacher said that he felt that he now understood a line in the poem by William Wordsworth. His new insight was of the line "My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky." It seemed a simple line, but he said that with this new understanding he was changing his approach when he taught the poem and was approaching other works by Wordsworth differently. The change would not be slight or insignificant.
The second comment from a different teacher was about the fact that he had altered substantially his approach to in-class writing in his research writing class. He now structured the writing that was done during class sessions to each individual student's research assignment. This change altered the structure of the class substantially and included individual tutorials.At first glance these comments may not seem to be related. On the one hand John R. Hendrickson of Snow College was changing the way he taught a poem; on the other hand Demont Howell was changing the way he taught research writing. What these ideas have in common is that they came from faculty during their last quarter before retirement. The first made his statement after 30 years of teaching and the second after 32 years in the classroom.
These teachers were changing and gaining insights during the last class that they may ever teach and after over a combined half century of experience.
I don't remember much about the statistics class that Frank Jex taught at the University of Utah except that it was hard. I do remember the advice he gave. "Don't become a teacher unless you enjoy learning so much that it will become a lifelong passion."
What Jex was saying was that effective teachers will continue to study. This study is not a search motivated by duty to the profession or to the students but is a passionate search motivated by the very activity of learning. Although the search is an end in itself for the passionate teacher, it also enlivens and invigorates the class, and it is ultimately the student who benefits.
The continual study of the effective teacher is both pedagogical and disciplinary. Effective teachers keep current on both the discipline they teach and the method of teaching that discipline.
At a recent forum at Snow College teaching scholars discussed evolution from the perspective of different disciplines. The forum was not a debate, although the participants clearly saw the issues from different vantage points. The participants were obviously prepared. Sources were cited, examples given, authorities quoted and leads offered where more could be discovered.
At one point the moderator noticed that a particular panel member was busy making notes and assumed the he was writing down information for another comment or question. "I notice that you are doing some writing; do you have another comment?"
"No, I don't. I'm just learning something and wanted to remember it." The point is that this scholar was already an expert and already well informed and had been invited to the forum to teach, but as a teacher this scholar was also a passionate learner.
That quality is what contributes to his ability to teach.
One of the most exciting ideas that a student can hear from a teacher in the classroom is the new idea. When the teacher says "I discovered just last week while reading" or "the television program yesterday taught me" or "just this morning in the newspaper it said," more is being taught than new facts.
These teachers are teaching that even the experts are still learning. They are showing with actions louder than their words that learning doesn't mean somehow mastering a dusty cannon of facts. Learning is a passionate continuing activity of the effective student and teacher.
Effective teachers continue to read the journals of their discipline, seek inservice activities, challenge themselves with new ideas, and even change teaching method and cite new insights in the last class they may ever teach.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84626