Today’s post was written by my friend Andrew Ek, a teacher, writer, and performer in Omaha who generously offered to share a reflection on the subject of “teaching” for my Radvent series this year. One of the many things Andrew does that I’m a big fan of is managing the Nebraska Writers Collective, a literary non-profit that sends passionate writers into schools to stimulate creativity, foster education, inspire, and mentor students. The NWC produces Louder than a Bomb, an Omaha youth poetry festival each year, and I love that our community has such a rich culture of performance and so many spoken word events thanks to groups like the Nebraska Writers Collective and the work of people like Andrew Ek. Here’s Andrew’s take on today’s theme, “Teaching.”
When I was getting ready for my very first classroom, I had an active distaste for the warm-and-fuzzy “Teaching changes the world!” sentiment which many of my peers and colleagues seemed to espouse (and an even more active distaste for teacher’s-lounge-talk to the tune of “If it weren’t for all these kids, teaching would actually be a pretty okay job.” Definitely not a tune I wanted to sing). Today, though, I’m going to unapologetically and unironically express that very sentiment, that is, that teaching can change the world.
When I say “teaching,” I should note that I don’t necessarily mean formal lesson plans (complete with a blackboard, a globe, and a quiz at the end of the chapter!), but rather any activity which helps another person deepen their connection to a domain of skills / knowledge — this is what we can call explicit teaching, in that there is usually a clear, concrete goal. We can also talk about implicit teaching, that is, the invisible lessons we teach to those around us by the very virtue of our own existences: these lessons are almost never planned out, but instead end up in statements like “There is at least one person in the world who ________,” (the thing to note here is that that blank can be positive — there is at least one person in the world who will always wish me a good morning — or it can be negative — there is at least one person in the world who will lie to me to get what ze wants).
In either case, there is only so much control that we have over the lessons which others choose to draw from our actions. There’s a lot we can control, however, about the shape and tenor of our own actions, and about the ways we build relationships with others.
I’m in my sixth year of being a teacher, that is, of earning most, if not all of my living from teaching, and more importantly, spending a good portion of my time and energy teaching (I’ve taught high school English and math, and now teach computer programming at UNO and travel around the state teaching poetry, writing, and performance through the Nebraska Writers Collective). I’ve made a few attempts to leave the profession (“For good this time, I swear it!”), but there’s honestly nothing I’d rather do with my life, and there is no other vocation — call it a calling, if you like — where I can as directly and as actionably help other people find ways to be more amazing and more successful (however “successful” is defined) today than yesterday.
I’ve never had a student write to me (after a class was finished) to say “Hey, Mr. Ek, I wanted to let you know that the technical skills I learned in your class are valuable and I think they will help me be successful in the future.” Not once has that happened. Instead, the notes I get are “Mr Ek., I used to be afraid of math, but I enjoy it now thanks to your class,” and “You helped me learn to believe in myself, and to trust that I can solve any problem, given enough time, effort, and thoughtfulness.” (This certainly isn’t every student, and there have been at least a few students who’ve told me “I used to enjoy classes like this, but now I don’t,” but my hope is that I get it right more often than not).
THESE are the lessons of teaching. When we can not only transmit a skill, but where we can also teach someone that they are capable of great and wonderful feats, and that no problem is so large that they can’t solve at least a part of it.
This isn’t to say that we should pretend to sit on high, dispensing lessons to the mortals below. My best teachers (that is, the ones from whom I learned the most) were not the ones who spoke from capital-A-Authority (“You will do what I tell you, puny student!”), but rather the ones who spoke kindly and compassionately, and who, instead of dictums, could clearly see both what I was trying to accomplish and how my process was (or wasn’t) making progress toward that goal, and who then were able to respond to me and my work in a way that was intensely personal and grounded in experience.
Teaching can change the world, but no lesson on sentence diagrams, no tutorial on solving systems of quadratic equations, and certainly no neatly-written seating chart will accomplish that change on its own. Teaching, more than lesson plans and more than worksheets, is about building constructive, positive relationships predicated upon being invested in the success of others (and typically with little to no thought of reward), and more importantly, upon the sharing of oneself (knowledge / experience / skills / and so on).
There are certainly limits, of course, to what one can reasonably do. My first year of teaching, I was working close to 90 hours a week and would often eschew eating in favor of more work. It wasn’t healthy, and it certainly wasn’t sustainable. There is a trope, particularly in USAmerica, of the teacher who pinches pennies, drives a car older than her students, and whose clothes are perpetually stained with red ink and coffee, and I don’t think that this is at all a healthy trope. I don’t mean to argue that we should all take vows of poverty and then sacrifice ourselves on the altar of pedagogy (when we sacrifice something, typically we never get it back; sacrificing the self, then, seems like a silly thing to do in most cases).
I do mean, though, to say that whether we know it or not, and whether we mean to or not, we all have skills, knowledge, and experience which we can share to help others become more successful, and we all know someone whose success we can help bring about, even if only in a minor way, by spending a little bit of our own time without expecting anything in return.
Remember, it’s not the fancy lesson plans, or the whiz-bang handouts, or even the carefully designed PowerPoint presentation (ugh) that makes a good teacher. Instead, it’s the relationships you build (either formal or informal) between yourself and the person you’re teaching, and more importantly, between the person you’re teaching and the success and skill they’re about to experience and learn (respectively). And teaching can be as simple as “Hey, can I show you something cool?”
This doesn’t require you to get your teaching license, or to acquire a tweed jacket with leather arm-patches, or even to write out lesson plans. It just requires a willingness to share yourself and your experiences for the benefit of others, and a desire to make the path just a little bit smoother for someone else than it was for you.
With that ethos, though, teaching can (and will) change the world.
Who are/were your most influential teachers and mentors? What was the most important lesson you learned from them? How is your life different because of this?
These lessons aren’t always good, but they are good to recognize.
Is there anyone who considers you a teacher or mentor, or even just a voice of experience? Think about how you relate to this person — do you help them to do more and to be better?
What are you good at? What gets you excited?
We do our best teaching when we’re absolutely excited about that which we teach (or about what our students can do with that information once they’ve got it), and when we know our subject backwards and forwards. How can you help others to get this excited too? How can you share your excitement?
What is one lesson you wish you would’ve learned much earlier than you did?
For me, that lesson is “It’s okay to relax, and it’s okay to have to learn how to relax. Intense focus is an asset, certainly, but it’s no good to you if you burn yourself out.” What’s a lesson you wish you never had to learn?
What is one domain where you still feel like a complete beginner, or where you sometimes doubt yourself? Do you know others who are also learning to navigate that domain?
The best teaching and learning is often done between peers of similar skill level (see: Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development). A strict teacher-student relationship wouldn’t work here, but there are all sorts of opportunities to share experiences, skills, and information, and to do so in ways that help all involved parties be successful.
Learn as much by writing as by reading.
Thanks so much to Andrew! If you have any thoughts or reactions to this post, I’d love to see them in the comments below.