September always turns my thought to classrooms and the excitements, at least from a teacher’s point of view, of meeting new faces and beginning a new school year. As a former teacher I always felt that first classes were special experiences, having their own energy as well as a questioning curiosity on both sides of the desks. When a student, I would take a quick read on any teacher that day, trying to figure out what I was in for over the coming months, what I could get away with, how hard I had to work. Later, as a teacher, I did the same with my students, wondering what surprises, good and bad, awaited me.
Over the years I learned a great deal from teachers as well as a lot about them; not necessarily about who they were but how they worked and what went on in their souls in the classroom. Most were passionate about their subjects, well-prepared and wanting their students to catch their contagions. The best ones invariably gave me the feeling that they were learning along with the rest of us, that their students had something to teach them as well. They were open, with a sense of humor and fairness and an ability to say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you.”
Every teacher I had taught me how to teach; some how not to. But all of them touched me into growing. Early on, I had thought learning was all about giving teachers back, sometimes by rote, what they taught. So I worked hard memorizing what I thought they wanted. All that changed in graduate school the day I asked a teacher about a term-paper assignment. I wanted to know what he was looking for. He stopped me cold when he said, “Don’t give me what I want; give me your mind, what you’re thinking and seeing and feeling.” I did just that by writing an off-beat paper that would have never seen the light of day otherwise and got an “A.” I learned a lot – about myself and how to be a true student – from him, and more than 45 years later, am still grateful.
Teaching, I have come to believe, is a creating experience – for both teacher and student. Teaching touches and shapes lives. Truly effective teachers not only know and respect their power in the classroom but also share it with those they teach. In any classroom where teacher and learners share excitements, a better world becomes possible, if not tangible. But what happens there is not just a September thing; it ultimately influences every day of one’s life. Good-to-great teachers know that; their students will as well, eventually.