Sunday, March 14, 2010

Those Who Can Do, Teach

For most of my student life (including now, as a graduate student) my worst nightmare had been less than glorious grades. Yes, I was one of those painful nerds. Anything less than an 'A' (or 98% in Math, allowing myself one generous slip) was not acceptable in my books.

So I can only imagine how devastated I would be if I saw this on my assignment: "-20% for being a loser." It would be crushing to even the most profane, self-proclaimed slacker (there is always at least one guy like that in every class, right?) much less to say the average kid trying to get through school.

Yet this really did happen. A teacher in North Carolina wrote that on his sixth grade student's paper. Her mother is crying foul and calling him a bully. Some other parents swear by the teacher but wouldn't go on camera to be interviewed. According to the news report, the teacher's defense is that this is his way of 'connecting' with the student. Really? A sixth-grade girl needs to be called a loser to perform better?

I believe in maintaining an open, non-judgmental approach. But forgive me, I can't swallow this one.

"To teach is a privilege as much as it is to study with a teacher dedicated to nurturing." I posted this on my Facebook status update as a reflection of how I was feeling (fuming, actually) over the story.

I have a huge respect for teachers. I have done some teaching myself -- tutoring high school kids in Singapore, teaching yoga, and English to disadvantaged children in Asia. To say that it is a tough job to do is to make a major understatement. But mostly, my reverence for the profession stemmed from the teachers who have touched my life.

It may surprise most people to learn this now, but I was a rebel without a cause as a kid. It wasn't the studying part I had a problem with. That was easy. Most of the time, I was bored. The teacher who made learning come alive for me early on in elementary school was Mrs J. Lest you think this is going to be a Dead Poets' Society story, let me disabuse you of the kind of teacher Mrs J was. She was no fun. Seriously. She made us practice reading aloud every day, and she expected nothing short of a perfect score for the daily routine of 20 mental math sums we had to do. She would walk around the classroom of 40 desks and chairs lined up neatly in rows and columns, dictating the sums while we raced to compute the tally in our heads in the 30 seconds per sum time limit she had set.

Cheating was not even a vague possibility or consideration. Not under the piercing gaze from behind her black rimmed spectacles, and her no-nonsense bearing. She would sweep around the room in her bright purple and magenta sari, jet black hair pulled back into a pony tail to reveal the most distinguished forehead. The red bindi dot right in the center of her forehead seemed to put a final period to the line: "Don't mess with me."

I loved Mrs J. Her 10-minute mental sums were my favorite part of the school day. She coached me in taking part in math contests. She also encouraged me to write beyond the formulaic compositions we were taught to churn out at that age. She made me a prefect, and showed me that I had what it took to take the lead, despite being an only child with few friends. She was also the teacher in charge of the school library. When she asked me to become a volunteer librarian, she set me on the path my life would take. The hours I spent after school in the library with her and the handful of students she had handpicked for the honor became the fondest memory of my time in that school. She taught us how to write catalogue cards (yes, the OLD fashioned way with a pen and index card), identify call numbers, Dewey Decimal system, publishers versus printers, authors versus editors, etc. She also showed us the neat trick of using a ruler to smooth out the air bubbles and edges of the clear plastic sheets we used to wrap the book covers up. (Yes, back in those days books were given the respect they were due, wrapped in plastic sheets and not subjected to the fate of tattered edges and torn pages.)

Mrs J ruled with an iron hand at the blackboard but taught with a golden heart beyond the classroom. She was traditional and conservative, never joking with her students. But she let us know that she really cared for us and that her life's vocation was to send us into the world with our heads on our shoulders and hearts in the right places. I wouldn't be the person I am today if she hadn't been my teacher.

There were many others who touched my life high school, college, and especially my yoga teachers.

After I posted my FB update, a friend and classmate from way back reminded me: "Have you forgotten the cretins who used to teach us." And she was right. The truth is I have encountered many seriously bad teachers who did their profession a real disservice. There was the physical education teacher who made a pass at my well endowed friend, and the one who told a bunch of girls that he had porn in his office. The same guy also gave me this advice when I encountered a man who exposed himself to me while I was running in the vicinity of the school: "Next time, just stand there and LAUGH at him." Then, there was the humanities tutor who made remarks about Chinese people having slit eyes and the economics lecturer who loved to scratch his armpits and dismissed Arts students as ever having a chance to do well in his class.

It makes me wonder why some of these people chose to teach in the first place. Unless one has a passion to nurture and educate, to connect with young minds and positively shape young lives, the job can be tedious, stressful, exhausting and seemingly thankless. Actually, it's pretty much that way even for passionate teachers, from what many of my friends who are wonderful teachers tell me. For me, there were times teaching yoga to kids that I have felt my energy and wits completely abandon me.

I completely disagree with the cliche that "those who can't do, teach." I believe that teaching is strictly for those who CAN do. A good teacher has to be a great communicator, a superb organizer, and a skilled multi-tasker, while being well-read and creative. Most importantly, I believe a great teacher is someone who has compassion and humility. No one can know all there is to know. A teacher's job is not merely to impart knowledge, but to nurture the desire for knowledge.

Right after reading that news story about the misguided teacher who thinks calling his student a loser is the way to go, I read an email about an excellent teacher being honored for his work. My friend, TS, teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with the Montgomery County Literacy Council. Three times a week, for three hours in the evening, he teaches at Rockville High School. He started as a volunteer teaching assistant and jumped in to take up the duty when the council needed a teacher for a beginners' class. His class is one of those with the highest and most consistent attendance. This is a big deal when your students are immigrant adults who have to cope with work, family and learning English. The council is giving him the ESL Teacher of the Year Award.

It was because of my friend's infectious passion and dedication that I decided to volunteer as a T.A. for the program. I assist another amazing teacher in an advanced class once a week. I wrote TS an email: "Congratulations! I'm proud to be your friend."

I believe that's how his students feel too.

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