Category Archives: Teaching

Reverence for a teacher

Photo Sep 06, 3 35 00 PM
Memorial behind  McGraw Hall, Cornell

Behind my office at Cornell University, or rather to the side and behind the imposing statue of Ezra Cornell, sits this memorial to a professor .

I have created the narrative of slow thoughtful research for this professor. I see him with drawings and diagrams all hand drawn as he passes knowledge from one generation to another.

In my mind’s eye, this professor is hiking around our towns, stopping to point his finger at a phenomenon in the natural world. His students stand still, quiet, holding his words, filing them carefully for another time to be accessed on their own hikes.

I hear a quiet peaceful noise when I stop by this monument to this teacher. I think it is nice and kind that he remains here to remind us all of what can be learned in silent, steady, peaceful observation.

I note well that this monument, this glacial rock, has stood still during my 2 plus years at this job. Still and motionless as my life progresses on faster than I ever imagined in the springtime of adulthood.

 

My Respect Paper ~ from my teaching memoirs

Into my third year as a high school teacher, I was having a heart-to-heart with my college bound senior class on the concept of respect.  They were only about ten years younger than myself but I was clearly the adult in the situation.  In the course of our conversation, one of the students said, “Why should I respect Emma?”

 Emma worked at our school as a teacher’s aide and lunch room monitor.  She was kind to me and we ate lunch every day together.  Emma went through the school of hard knocks and graduated.  I have heard she said some pretty crude things when her back was pushed up against a wall, but I honestly never heard her say anything inappropriate.

I was dismayed by my students response:  how arrogant, how condescending, how had we morphed into this world?  I felt I wanted to do something and so I did.  I assigned them a respect paper.  I asked them to write about the person they respected most and break it down into why, with three or four concrete examples. I hoped that through an anlysis of what constituted respect, they would grow to see the problem in their thinking about my friend Emma. Then they challenged me to do the same, I did.  What follows is the result, My Respect Paper.

I give everyone I come into contact with respect for two reasons.  The first reason is because we are all human beings, flawed and subject to the same vulnerabilities, the biggest being death which humbles and unites us all.  The second reason I give all human beings respect is because if I fail to do this, I may miss something important that they have to show me.  For example, if I did not respect my students despite their young age and inexperience, I would miss all the fresh ideas and hope they have to offer me.  The respect I give all human beings may heighten and intensify with time as I become more involved with them, but for this to occur I have to start with respect for mankind in general.

I have chosen to write my paper on Mr. Keating  (played by Robin Williams), a prep school teacher in the film Dead Poets Society  and a personification of what I respect in a human being and a teacher.

Mr. Keating has many admirable qualities and they are exhibited in his teaching style.  As a teacher, his goals were not content oriented but rather, student oriented.  Mr. Keating’s most impressive strength  was his ability to make his students look beyond poetry and into their souls.  This was evident on the first day of class when he led his students to the pictures of previous Welton graduates (Welton was the name of the school where he was teaching).  He instructed his students to look into the eyes of the alums and see the vigor, energy, and hope within those eyes.

“Lean in,” said Mr. Keating, and “peruse some of the faces from the past…invincible, just like you feel, the world is their oyster…their eyes are full of hope, just like you.  Did they wait to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable of?  Because you see Gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. Lean in and hear them whisper their legacy to you:  “Carpei, Carpei Diem.” “Seize the Day.”  “Make your lives extraordinary.'”

The best thing about this strategy was that it worked and his students began to seize the day as they ventured into their school year.

Secondly, I respected Mr. Keating’s dedication to nonconformity in his teaching.  Mr. Keating wanted students to think for themselves and this was clearly evidenced when he instructed them to tear out the first chapter on poetry analysis in their textbook.  “Excrement!” he stated as he told them to “Rip.”  He then went on to explain that poetry can not be measured by others who write about it, and that in his class, these young men would learn to think for themselves.  Although this method would not be possible for most teachers, a belief in independent thinking was illustrated well in this exercise.

Finally, Mr. Keating’s commitment to the individual student and helping him unearth what lies deep within his soul was tempered by his ability to guide, but not force.  He gave his students’ ideas in such a way that they wanted to explore life and poetry for themselves.  This was evidenced when he tempted them with knowledge about the Dead Poets Society, a secret organization where he and his peers found safety to “suck the marrow out of life” as they read and thought about poetry.  Mr. Keating was successful in stimulating his students to go beyond themselves as they too went to the caves around Welton and formed a Dead Poets Society.

In conclusion, Mr. Keating’s great ability as a teacher is admirable.  He took all of his life experiences and provided his students with the ability to experience life for themselves.  If you have not seen the movie, make some popcorn some night this summer and plug-in the VCR , it is well worth it.

I will truly miss you all next year, thanks for a great year, you have been an extraordinary class. “Carpei Diem.”

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Reflections on Teaching 1987, circa 1996

 

Reflections-for-web
Looking through the windows of a one room school house:  June 9 2016…reflections on the window and through the window

I went back in 1987 to my old high school, no longer in existence, to teach social studies.  As I turn the magic number this week of 55, I can now collect my monthly pension. My ten year payout is paltry compared to what thirty years in gives retirees, but I have worked with people who lived on that amount. I am grateful and my life is simple.
Today I will reflect on the one room school house. There I was with 130 or so faces passing through my classroom daily and I was ill equipped to discipline in the late 20th century, when an older English teacher told me: ‘the best way to discipline: pretend you are in a one room school house.’

This picture above is a one room school house.  His advice sounded good and sometimes it worked.  Most of the time, it did not.

It worked when I taught a college level Macro-Economics course to 17 well-behaved, motivated, curious students.  I loved what I was teaching and the students and I gelled.  Throughout my lectures, discussions arose that made me think that I was connecting to humanity in a profound way.  Teaching at its best: those moments when everybody gets it and falls silent at the weight of the knowledge.

 

The students wanted to learn from me and I believe I did a good job.  It was the parent of one of these students who sent me the greatest thank you note in my teaching career. I have it somewhere among my things: she left a message with the school secretary who wrote it out and  to the effect, it read ‘Dan loves your class and cant wait to get there everyday.’

Most of the time, my one room school house was a wreck, or close to it.  To be fair, I weighed 40 pounds less than I do now, was ill prepared for coping with the illnesses and drugs that coursed through the veins of my students, and was evaluated at the time by my aunt’s hard core divorce friend as, ‘too nice for this world.’

My disclaimer however, should not substitute for the lack of support I received from parents, colleagues in the department, and administrators, to run my one room school house.  Nor should it negate, the expectations placed on me to bring out the best in all 130 souls that passed my way. For me, the weight of the conflict was extraordinary…I knew after my first year, I could give public school teaching 10 years but that a lifetime of it would drain my soul.

In the same one room, circa 1996, thirty-three hormonal fourteen year olds barreled into my Global Studies class for ninth period, the last class of the day.  Thirty-three students is a number at which you just pray to keep them all alive without melting down yourself.  The end of the day…always a bad class time, thats why it is assigned to new teachers. Students at fourteen have been trapped for about 7 hours, they want out, jumping beans come to mind.  I delivered the material but I was really in survivor mode.

At a parent teacher conference, a parent of a shy young man from that class took me to task. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘You’ve got a bright kid here, I would think that you would pull him aside, nurture him, encourage him, get him to his personal best. Not come home with Cs.’

I literally was speechless. He had a point, but what I wanted to yell back at him was, 168 students (we were in an over enroll year) pass through that door everyday.  You have one – you do the job!

Now I say: Sir, I would of if I could of!

@claireaperez@gmail.com

Claire Anne Perez