Affecting Eternity

By Gretchen Gibbs

Not long ago, The New York Times published an article by Elizabeth Alsop about how the media is portraying teachers, and it’s not a pretty picture. For instance, we have Walter on “Breaking Bad” making and dealing drugs, rather than the old picture of teachers inspiring students in “To Sir with Love.” The media reflects as well as influences public perceptions, and I agree with the premise of the article: Teaching has never been seen as so lowly a profession as it is today. We have only to remember the protests about teachers’ salaries in Wisconsin and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s remarks at the Republican convention about teachers’ unions.

Why should this be? Teachers actually may not be doing as good a job as they once did. As a college teacher I saw the quality of students’ writing and thinking steadily deteriorate over the span of 30 years. Reports are always showing that U.S. students are less well educated than others around the world.

There are many reasons for this decline within the training of teachers and the way schools are administered today in the United States. Finnish schools are said to excel, for instance, because teachers have to undergo rigorous entrance examinations, and are then well paid and treated with respect. They develop their own assessment techniques for students instead of using standardized tests.

I’ve been thinking, though, that part of the problem has to do with technology. Power Point and online course work dilute the impact of the teacher. Reading Tuesdays with Morrie, I realize how much more difficult it would be to develop a student-teacher relationship like that today when you have many fewer opportunities for personal interaction.

Respect for the teacher’s knowledge goes out the window when you can find out more than the teacher knows on a small device you keep in your pocket. It used to be that if you were puzzled by something in the course work, you’d have to wait till the next day, or even the next week for a college course, to consult the teacher. Now, if Wikipedia doesn’t have the answer, you’ll find it somewhere else online.

Teachers need to provide more than information. That’s one reason that “teaching to the test” is such a poor idea. The kind of things you can test for are usually not the crux of learning. Judgment and critical thinking, tolerance, how to express yourself – those are more important than historic dates or the subjunctive case, but so hard to evaluate on a paper and pencil test. In Tuesdays with Morrie, Mitch Albom quotes Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” Adams wasn’t talking about teaching the ability to solve quadratic equations.

I think about my own career teaching psychology, first to undergraduates and masters students, and then to doctoral students. Both my parents were teachers, so I went into the profession with some expectation of success, only to find it much more difficult than I had imagined. I always tell students if they really want to learn a subject, teach it.

At the beginning I was so stiff. No matter how I prepared, I feared that it wouldn’t be enough to fill the fifty minutes, and sometimes it wasn’t. I was never charismatic, I never told jokes. Over time, lots of time, I think I became a pretty good teacher.

Gradually I learned to engage the class, to start with a challenging question to be explored rather than answered. That’s what I feel good about in my teaching, training students to question received wisdom. Although I’m sure I had defensive lapses, I tried to treat each student’s question or comment with respect, even when it was ignorant or critical of me. That was part of modeling tolerance. Teaching psychotherapy is more than learning techniques. I believe that the core of successful psychotherapy resides in the empathic human connection between the therapist and the client, and the successful relationship between teacher and student is not so different.

I’m sure most teachers have such recollections of success, probably different than mine depending on the individual and the subject matter. But these successes are what matters to the profession, what we need to recognize and honor in our teachers.




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One Response to “Affecting Eternity”

  1. Jo Galante Cicale Says:

    Today’s teachers – especially in our inner city schools – face many complexities outside of the box of teaching. My daughter’s freshman and sophomore high schoolers come to school from homes that are incredibly broken and lacking basics. Yet, she’s had students ask her to be in their graduation pictures noting that they are the first to ever complete high school. Technology offers snipets of information; it’s a tool but cannot take the place of human interaction.

    Great and thoughtful piece!

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