On What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher: A (Shoddy) Manifesto, Part 1 – Point of An Education

Obviously pinning down this question is one of the most important reasons why I (and I assume all of my colleagues) are all here, and kind of what the point of this semester is….Obviously this has been somewhat discussed by us a little bit, as we’ve had our first school visit by now, but in this post I plan to peg down my personal feelings on what exactly I think this is and what it means.

As with all things, I think the best way to start going about doing this is is to go back to definitions (get it? ‘Cause Math) and what things actually mean/what their purpose is in order to grasp their essential notions and what is important in them in order to make sure that the practice that one engages in is actually promoting and centered around this purpose….As anyone who has worked in math knows, it is very easy to get stuck and work yourself around in circles if you do not take the initial effort to actually understand the problem (Polya’s 1st step) and then sit and think for a while about possible plans that could be enacted and make sure that you have devised the right (or best at the time, or a good enough one, or whatever metric you want to use in order to decide to go through with it as long as that metric is deemed by yourself to be what you yourself consider your personal best at that particular time….) plan before actually carrying it out. That is the point of this first step….

I believe (having read some Aristotle, Plato, Marx, W.E.B. Dubois, and Toni Morrison’s wonderful The Big Box – as well as being idealistic and impressionable….despite many others’attempts,) that the goal of an education is to create a good human being and that it should be “training men[, women, and others] for life”…by this we mean:
1) an educated citizen who has thought deeply about issues that affect them and their fellow human beings and been exposed to these both by their education system and through living in the world – discussions with friends, living in cities, working in jobs
2) someone who, having spent the first (or most recent) however many years of their lives gaining theoretical knowledge is not satisfied with that alone. An educated human being should be one who believes that the lesson of school and schooling is in practice and learning how to do things correctly, approach problems systematically, and work and try ones hardest until one fails, gets back up, dusts themselves off, and displays perseverance in going after a problem which they believe to be a problem, believe to be solvable with enough effort, and know that the best way to go about solving it is to first and foremost go head-on and try to do so oneself instead of waiting around for others to say that it’s alright to do so. Basically, in this sense, an educated person is one who after having formed their opinions and beliefs actually believes in them, follows them consistently (with room for change and reflection, of course, as always), and tries to put them into practice in the way that they live…this means being independent and working on ones own when no one will join them in fighting for their cause, because they believe it to be right no matter anyone else’s opinions…and when there are fellow warriors on their side, actually collaborating with them, seeing what a team or group or mass of human beings can do together when they just decide that they can do it, sit down, and put their minds together….An educated human being is, in this sense, a leader in being a follower of their own judgments and one who carries through on their own plans
3) Specifically, one vastly important way in which one should put their knowledge into practice and through this practice amass and spread more knowledge is by returning to one’s community in order to help those in worse situations – more impoverished, less educated, with less social clout, and ultimately less free to follow their hearts, do what one desires, and live the life that one wants to live, largely due to unbelievably stupid reason such as of their socioeconomic, cultural, and individual circumstances….In this belief, there is an inherent assumption that there are, in fact, higher aims of life than just subservience to what one is told, the circumstances one is born into, the negative influences of society around oneself…and that while an education certainly can and should have some worth in helping one to secure a prosperous future in terms of economic stability, its much higher purpose is to allow human beings to be free, act for themselves and (consider themselves to) be allowed to do so, and instill a knowledge, compassion, and respect for and of both oneself and one’s fellow human beings….

While, obviously, this might seem like a lot to ask from a few years in school, I believe it is important to remember that one’s best shot of completing a task and achieving a goal is keeping that in sight and what one needs to do in order to do so (as any math student who has had to do, say 30 hours of work a week, the hardest part is finding the time and focusing on using it well)…as DuBois puts it, “only a firm adherence to … higher ideals and aspirations will ever keep those ideals within the realm of possibility.” If one is to assume – as I, at least, would certainly like to – that education can and should be used for bringing about positive social change…one should obviously hope that education promotes people to believe this, and certainly at least does not get in their way of doing so, through means such as censorship, the mockery and ridicule of ideas, and threatening free thinkers with some sort of institutional repercussions….Essentially, a school should attempt and continue indeed to promote and distill “the broad knowledge of what the world knows and knew of human living” but not forget that the point of doing so is in emphasizing it as “[that] which [may be applied] to the thousand problems of real life to-day confronting her,” and allowing students to do so as they see fit, rather than in the way that the school solely desires or purely in an academic(-promoting) or theoretical way…it is not in ‘coming into contact with Truth and Beauty’ (whatever that means…) that is the point of one’s search for them. Rather, it is what one does in ones life with this knowledge identified as important.

Thus, I think in large part, (as will certainly be expanded upon later when I have no longer run out of steam, and need to avoid doing Topology homework again….) my personal model of a good teacher is one who models these ideas. A teacher is somebody who believes in the higher ideals of education, believes in the possibility of their being achieved, strives to do so themselves, leads their life as a good example and provides the belief to students that they can do so themselves…and by far most importantly, imbues this same understanding and desire to one’s students to live out the lives they truly believe in, trust and respect themselves and each other, and essentially fight for the continual increase in the availability (to themselves and others) of this freedom that they have been given (by coming into contact with such a thinker and such ideas). The point of an education is not the education itself, but rather (what it allows one to do and) what one does with it afterwards.

Future things I’ll probably/hopefully talk about include why I think turning around and being an educator oneself is actually a great use of this theoretical knowledge and counts as its being put into practice rather than just an engagement in a perpetual circle of learning and teaching the same things over and over again and never applying them, why the most important award is probably the “last one to leave the room award” and why hard work and the willingness to do whatever is necessary is probably more important than a (great) formal education, the lessons I think/hope I have learned from some of my favorite (and/or least favorite? probably not…) teachers, and much, much more as I tend to be opinionated and actually care about things….

Also note all the quotation mark parts are DuBois, I use some idea of Marx in here, and have written about this (largely for myself) somewhat before, including in papers (i.e. analyses of Marx’s and Dubois’ theories) for UChicago’s Social Sciences core classes before…it’s almost like sometimes you believe the things you believe and say the same things over and over again.

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One Response to On What It Takes To Be A Good Teacher: A (Shoddy) Manifesto, Part 1 – Point of An Education

  1. Pingback: Differentiated Instruction/Learning and the Student-Centered Approach; or: What Makes Good and Bad Teachers, respectively | BSME Fall 2015 Blog

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