"When the student is ready to learn, a teacher appears." This adage, though old, has a lot to say about modern education, and it is particularly appropriate right now, for May 5-11 is National Teacher Appreciation Week.
The adage expresses an idea, the wisdom of which most of us know from our own experience. A student can go through years of schooling without actually learning - that is, understanding - anything at all. But then, almost overnight it seems, there's a spark or a parting of clouds or a memorable moment of some kind when the child begins to "catch on." All of a sudden this child has discovered learning, or learned that discovering is a truly great joy. It is rarely as distinct or miraculous as Helen Keller's first understanding that "water" could be felt and pronounced and spelled, but that's the idea just the same.For the first time, a child becomes receptive to anyone who can feed this newly acquired hunger for learning, and in most cases that person is a classroom teacher - perhaps the same teacher who seemed to be just another piece of furniture a short time ago. And that teacher, seeing his or her patience and diligence rewarded in this awakening, is even more eager to provide the encouragement and nourishment that will keep the learning fires aglow.
One way that parents can contribute to this process is to have their children, whenever possible, become teachers at home. Instead of just filling in a workbook sheet about a social studies topic, for example, children can use the sheet (or note cards or their textbook) to help them present that topic in their own words. And the parent who hears this presentation can help greatly by interjecting questions that call for the child to think more deeply about the information at hand and perhaps to go beyond that information in order to achieve understanding.
Unfortunately, this type of awakening in children, this sudden realization that they "figured it out" in their own mind, doesn't come from a workbook sheet or from a textbook alone, nor from rote memorization nor from lectures. And even if it did, such techniques would do little to fuel that newfound desire because, I think, they have little to do with real teaching.
Learning - and here again I mean understanding - always requires some activity, some mental juggling and sorting out, on the part of the learner. The teacher cooperates in the process, but is not the principal cause of the learning. The skill and the craft and the art of teaching are in knowing how to lead an inquiring mind toward an individual act of discovery.
Consider for a minute the teaching that is done by a football coach. His goal, winning, is absolutely clear and accepted by all. To accomplish this end, would he ever think of teaching a punter the proper kicking technique by having the player fill out a worksheet on punting? Would he teach blocking or tackling or passing by lecturing the players all week and then expect them to perform these tasks well. Of course not.
I don't often find much to praise in high-powered school athletics, but coaching, at its best, can serve as a good model for teaching.
I know there are many skilled teachers who would like to be "coaches" in their own subject or classroom, but who recognize, as I do, that they have, perhaps, 35 students to coach, while the sports teams have assistant coaches and trainers and student helpers and parent volunteers besides. When I think of this tragic disparity, which exists in almost every school district across the land, I think of another adage, this a biblical one: "Where your treasure is, there also is your heart."- Dr. William F. Russell's books for parents and children include "Classic Myths to Read Aloud." Send your questions and comments about Family Learning to him at P.O. Box 1279, Menlo Park, CA 94026.