from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Why I am a teacher - a partial explanation 

I am a teacher. My blogname clearly indicates that. Many people I encounter electronically presume that I choose to teach because of a burning desire to inculcate knowledge into the mind of others. Had I confidence in what I know such a desire might play a far larger role than it does. The reality is far more complicated. It is also relevant to my participation in a political blog.

At times I have offered pieces of my understanding of why I spend my time with adolescents and my passion for what I do. I have never offered a comprehensive picture. I may not be able to do so even now, because my understanding remains incomplete. But this diary will offer a more complete glimpse, with perhaps a few flashes of true insight. If you are interested, come along on the journey.

I have always been fascinated by learning. That is the real key. As a small child I taught myself to read both words and music. Really. When I first demonstrated at about age 3 that I could decipher the markings on pages into comprehensible sounds my parents were somewhat surprised, but given that my mother had graduated from high school at fourteen and Cornell at 18 not totally overwhelmed. But when I stood at the piano and begin picking out the notes from the piece of music opened thereupon they did not at first accept that I was reading the music. After all, I could have watched as my mother played. When they put up another piece of music that she had not played and I still was able to pick out the top line they were convinced - and shocked.

I offer this anecdote not to impress, but to explain. I have always sought to make meaning of things around me, to see how they worked. Shortly thereafter, so the family tale goes, I took apart a vacuum cleaner, then put it together minus a part or two. My parents were afraid to plug it in, so they took it to the store, where the owner determined that it still worked, but suggested they give it back to me and have me take it apart and put it together using all the parts. Apparently I did, and at that point everyone was sure I was going to be an engineer.

I read, incessantly. We got multiple newspapers and I would read lots of things that I did not understand. I would make up my own meanings for new words, sometimes correctly, sometimes not. My parents finally showed me what a dictionary did and I became fascinated. I began to read the dictionary. My mother showed me about the pronunciation guides, but that took the fun away. It was more fun to try to determine the sounds on my own. I would later repeat the pattern of reading through reference books with encyclopedias and almanacs, and given a memory that retained almost anything that grabbed its attention I started to build a frightening accumulation of miscellaneous information.

The key was the fascination with learning. Without recounting all of my early years, at times the fascination was not a positive thing - perhaps because I was somewhat insecure at least from around my 8th or 9th birthdays I would use knowledge as a means of controlling situations and people. Fortunately I understood that the best learning was not purely individual but also retained social aspects: it was in the sharing and explaining of information that it began to become meaningful knowledge. Curiosity could lead to human connection.

My desire to understand how things worked included games and sports. When at one point we did not have enough children our own age to play some of our games, I decided at around age 11 to teach the younger children some of the rules and some of the mechanics: of football, of running bases, etc. I found that I had to step back and understand how to do something before explaining or demonstrating it to others. I also began to learn something far more important: how I understood was not necessarily how others understood. In order to enable them to understand I had to listen and to watch what they did. It was my first lesson that teaching is as much learning from others as it is communicating to them. I had to let the “student” - in this case the younger child - help me learn how he learned in order to facilitate his learning. I could not simply impose my understanding. I had thus at a very early age learned one of the most important lessons about successful teaching.

If you have read this far I want to set your mind at ease. Yes, I am now sixty years old. But no, I do not intend to recount every incident of my life related to teaching. Relax, and continue sharing this journey with me.

In high school and went I went off to college I did not expect to become a teacher, even though I toyed with teaching, taking over several classes on senior day. I thought I would be a college professor perhaps, or possibly a lawyer. I was sure I was going to major in history, but partway through my sophomore year decided to switch to music. At the end of that year I dropped out and went into the Marines. While stationed at Quantico, as the piano player in the Post Band, i was asked to teach piano to the daughter of a brigadier general. In high school I had had one cello student. I had also tutored several students in physics, one formally through our school’s program during the year, and then my next door neighboring the summer. He had failed to graduate from prep school on time. He was a more willing student because when we were younger I used to regularly beat him at one-one-one basketball in his backyard even though he was 6-3 and I was 5-10. Then I taught him how to shoot a hook shot and how to protect the ball. I never beat him again. Teaching the general’s daughter reminded me of the great joy in helping someone else learn how to do something they could not previously do.

There are far too many incidents to recount that are somewhat similar in nature. At various times I paid a lot of attention to those I had as teachers and professors, watching how they did things, what worked and what didn’t. This included those who conducted the choirs and orchestras in which I participated, including during my summers at Interlochen. I already occasionally directed choirs while I was in high school, so this also became relevant.

My first “real” teaching came later in life. I went back to college at age 25 as a junior at Haverford, and by my senior year was already taking doctoral courses in musicology at Penn, where I formally enrolled upon graduation, fully expecting to wind up as a college music professor. But somehow it didn’t fit. When I dropped out late in my first term, I was also experiencing the end of a former marriage. For want of something else to do I spend the Spring term at Moorestown Friends School in New Jersey. This was my first real experience of organized teaching over an extended period. I had several small groups whom I assisted in reading skills and in math, and I co-taught several social studies classes. While I greatly enjoyed the experience, I could not imagine being able to live on what a Quaker school paid. After spending the summer in an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery (which I seriously considered joining - the appeal of monasticism is something that goes back to preadolescence and has remained a constant throughout my life) I returned to the Philadelphia area where I began working in data processing, a field in which I had worked in New York in between stints at Haverford. This is related to teaching in a number of ways. First, i constantly was learning new software, or about particular business procedures as I had to design new programs and systems. Second, I often wound up in supervisory roles, which required me to train other programmers and analysts. This would continue throughout all of my data processing career. Finally, when a new program or system was developed, I had to be able to document it in a way the users could understand. I would often have to train them in using the software. Knowing that often made a difference in how I designed things - here the lessons of teaching smaller children games and sports clearly came into play.

Teaching continued to a partial part of my life. I had joined the Orthodox Church, and quickly became the choir director of my small parish. I did not have many strong voices, but I was able by applying the various things I had learned at Interlochen, and in observing teachers, and in my own attempts at teaching, to work with the choir so that they actually sounded good. I had leadership roles in the parish, the diocese, the national church. I occasionally led retreats, or taught sessions on comparative religion. Slowly being a teacher became an increasing part of my life. Because I did not have children I agreed to serve as advisor to our teen group, so that no one would feel constrained by the presence of her own parent. This also reignited my interest in working with adolescents.

I had continued to work in data processing, but had moved from the private sector to working for my local government because I wanted to be of service, I wanted the work I did to make a difference, and I had concerns at how some of my efforts were enriching or empowering those with whose views I had strong disagreement. I quickly became a supervisor, and again much of my work effort connected with aspects of teaching and learning.

In 1992 I attended the 25th reunion of my original class at Haverford (1967), during which I had an extended conversation with a classmate who was an educator. I shared some stories from my time at Moorestown Friends. When we got back to our room that night Leaves on the Current pointed out that when i shared those stories my eyes lit up and I became almost a different person. She knew I was not completely happy in the work I was doing and asked why I didn’t consider becoming a teacher. When we got home I explored what I would have to do to become certified and what I could earn. I decided as I had after the term at Moorestown, that it didn’t pay as much, that I could not afford to do it, and set the idea aside.

But then it became clear my father had Alzheimer’s. For the many months dealing with his condition took up an increasing part of my life, including have to get him declared incompetent, get him a guardian (since he fought having his son in charge of him). He had been Phi Beta Kappa at Cornell, reached ABD in economics, had gone off to make some money hoping to return to his doctorate but instead raised a family. When in his later years he explored picking up his studies he had been away from the field for so long that he effectively would have had to start over. He surrendered his dream, and now his mind was going.

I realized that in my late 40’s I needed to seriously consider what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I decided Leaves was right, that I was different person when I reflected about the teaching I had done, that I was drawn to teaching as being of service, as how I could make a difference. Perhaps because we did not have children of our own it was a way of doing something of a parenting role. I argued my way into an MAT program at Johns Hopkins and quit my job. That was in 1994. When I completed my studies I did not at first get a teaching job - I had struggled in my high school placement during my student teaching. Fort a while I sold cars, which made me a better teacher: I learned yet again to listen to and observe people. I became a very effective car salesman.

My dad died during this time, the fall of 1995. In December I got a position as a long-term substitute in a middle school in Prince George’s County. I wa 49 years old. Within a week the principal moved to hire me permanently, and when the personnel office finally found my file in early January I went under contract. I was fortunate in that my principal was willing to let me take risks, and by the start of my second full year in the school I was the department chair. The following year I moved to the high school at which I have been, with one year away, ever since.

Why am I a teacher? Because I want my life to have meaning, and that meaning for me cannot be in isolation. Yes I had considered monasticism, both as an Episcopalian and as an Orthodox (For a number of years my spiritual father was the abbot of a monastery on Mount Athos in Greece) and I understand that being a monastic is not a life of isolation: one’s prayer life is not merely on one’s own behalf, but on behalf of all of mankind. And as a Merton aficionado I know that the monastic can be intimately concerned and involve with the larger world, that Merton taught us through his writing.

But I have found that I need that human interaction. It is best for me when it is face to face, which is one reason why I turned down an offer from Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth to teach AP Government over the net.

And yet - my blogging is in many ways an extension of my teaching. it is in the sharing of ideas that I grow. In my classroom I attempt to learn how my students learn and think, to provide them with skill development to better organize and write more clearly. Sometimes the questions they ask or the arguments they present really challenge me, and I grow more than do they. Similarly when I post a diary, it is in the ensuing discussion thread that the real learning occurs. That is also why I enjoy participating in discussions on diaries by others.

I am a teacher. It is not because I have superior knowledge, although when I deal with my high schoolers one would hope that I start the year with a deeper pool of knowledge. I do have some skill in pedagogy, which is far too often insufficiently valued in our discussions about education and schools. I am a teacher because I believe learning is a never-ending process. I am enthusiastic about learning, about attempting to understand the world around me.

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
Email accepted at "kber at earthlink dot net"
Preface email messages with "teacherken" so I know they are not spam.
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