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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Thoughts on Teaching

What makes a teacher a teacher?

Does one have to be in the academe or to have an academic title in order to be certified as a teacher? What about academics who only fly in the world of ideas while others march across the socio-political battlefield below? Can one be a teacher without having a sense of history? What if, like "Dr. Olvido" in Luis Teodoro's short story, "The Undiscovered Country," one is  so full of knowledge that he becomes out of touch with the harsh reality of the world around him, that history  would not even bother to record his first name? Can one be a teacher in mind but not by heart?

If education is classified as formal, non-formal, or informal, aren't educators -- teachers -- found in all these learning environments? Are teachers not found where students are? And does one stop teaching upon exiting the portals of the academe?


A teacher is always a student -- a student of book writers he has never met, of colleagues who know more than he does on certain fields of knowledge, of the very people he teaches in the classroom who can share a form of wisdom unique to their own experiences, and of almost everyone outside the academe he gets in touch with.

A teacher always remembers what Socrates supposedly told his students in Athens:

There is only one thing that I know of, and that is that I know nothing.

Or what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about learning from others:

Every man I meet is in some way my superior. In that way, I learn of him.

Or of Kahlil Gibran's thoughts on teaching:

No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.

...the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man.


Some say every human experience can be lived through vicariously.  But there is always a difference in vicarious and direct experience: S/He cannot fully understand how it is to be a teacher who has not experienced being one; S/He cannot fully appreciate what it takes to be a mother  or father who has never been one; S/He cannot fully feel for someone who lost his/her loved one who has not lost or pretends to not have lost any.

And s/he casually dismisses the woes of others who has not known the pangs of hunger and the terror of  abandonment, or felt the weight of a houseful of paperwork and the lightness of (a teacher's) pocketbook.  Shakespeare said it well:

They laugh at scars that never felt a wound.

Let me paraphrase that: They laugh at tears who never had sand in their eyes.


I've had the privilege of teaching elementary, high school and college students in both formal and non-formal settings, with 80% of my academic career time spent with college people.

Whenever someone asks me which student group is the toughest to handle, I am often tempted to point to the elementary level since it was there where I met the greatest challenge so far, especially that the setting was in another country where I had to teach English in classrooms that had an average of 35 students who had close-to-zero level of English communication skill.

But I realize that the meaning of "tough" can be relative, depending on where one is coming from.  Teachers have diverse personalities and potentials, come from different cultural or social backgrounds, have gone through varied lengths of service and types or levels of academic training, are saddled with sundry responsibilities, and find themselves in other disparate circumstances. And all of these are factored in when they qualify or quantify what is tough.

An elementary school teacher may say her job is the toughest compared with that of the high school instructor or the college professor since she has to prepare a daily lesson plan, deal with playful brats who have short attention spans, stay in school longer, file regular reports for some snooty, sour supervisor, etc.  But the other two may well argue that they too have to spend countless hours in lesson preparation, deal with easily bored, moody, cocky, know-it-all, or demanding adolescents and young adults, grapple with tons of paper work in school and at home, etc.


"Nosebleed!!!" is the buzzword among many of my students.  They often chorus the term  (while caressing the side of their noses with their forefingers and thumbs) whenever they find a quiz or exam not as easy as they had expected, or a lecturette to be way above their heads (perhaps because they've placed their brains under their chairs or that my explanation of a simple topic is just so convoluted that it has coiled itself way up to high heavens).  .  Little do they know that their teacher might have been having "hemorrhage" from battling with paper work or finding creative ways to make each class day a fruitful learning experience for them. :)


Senior professors often say college freshmen are arguably the best students to handle, and I think they're right.  For after all, freshies are still revving up for the dragging years ahead and di pa gaanong tumutubo ang mga sungay (haven't grown long horns yet).  This does not mean though that teaching them is the easiest thing to do.  For the foundational courses they take under their teachers are crucial to the shaping of their attitude toward college life as a whole; these may be their sources of disappointment or inspiration.  Their teachers thus need to make sure that they help create a greatly enjoyable  and highly productive learning atmosphere in the classroom. It is sometimes scary to realize that the trajectory of these students' academic and, in the long run, professional career can depend to some extent on how their instructors have handled their classes.


After having lived the life of a politician's child, I once decided that my lifelong arena would either be behind the pulpit (in the midst of a congregation, I should say, for I have always enjoyed preaching close to my hearers and have always been uneasy speaking from an elevated pulpit), or in the classroom.

Well, I tried serving in both fields of discourse at the same time but in different setups. One was preaching for a church while teaching in its preaching school, and the other was preaching for a congregation while earning my keep by teaching in a secular school.  Now that I'm no longer connected to or actively involved in any denomination, I have begun to practice my Christian faith outside organized religion  and to practice my profession in the University.

Understandably, when a preacher or ex-preacher joins the teaching pool of a non-sectarian school, some of the school officials sometimes fear that the new faculty member might find himself mistaking a teacher's table for a pulpiteer's lectern.  In my case, I was actually asked during a pre-employment interview whether I intend to preach in the classroom.  I assured them I knew how to draw the line between a sectarian church and a secular college.  In retrospect, I should have told them that I might find myself "sermonizing" in class from time to time over my students' unread assigned readings and poor academic performance.

Speaking of preaching in the classroom, I once was told of a colleague in another college where I used to teach who just couldn't keep the fire of his "Born-Again" faith unto himself during class hours for before starting off with the day's lesson, he'd draw a big cross in the middle of the blackboard and mutter something about Jesus.

Great. You gotta proclaim Jesus somehow, right? Especially when you got a "Pastor" stamped on your phylactery hanging by your chinny chin chin.

Now, how about tacking the letters "T-A-C-T" on this teacher's forehead (or at least on his restroom mirror)?


I sometimes become impatient when my lectures are slow to cross some of my students' minds (sorry for the misused idiom). My professor in grad school might have felt the same, seeing that my head is more dense than our textbook.hakhak


We teachers sometimes blame our students when they couldn't make head or tail of our class discussions when we should be blaming ourselves for our  ineffective teaching strategy or tool.


What matters most in teaching is not how well-liked you are today by your students, but how well they turn out tomorrow because of you.

Related Article: "Discoursed: More Thoughts on Teaching"


Precious Ivy Lopez said...

Hi po. Nice article! Teachers really matter, now I come to think of it. As the author Ginivy said in a poem THE ODE TO MENTORS, "Every great person history has known is a result of the seed you've sown."

It's not pretty easy to be a teacher, I see. Hmmm, I think it's easier becoming a student. I'm being "killed" (my friend's word) with papers and terror profs, but at least I don't tire myself in reading a heap of compositions from four sections or so.

I'd like to end my comment with a few lines from Ginivy's poem:

"Many paths in wait lay, yet you chose to go this way.
Like a shepherd leading a flock, when we wander off, you call us back.... Whatever we may become in the future, we owe one to you, our mentors, for sure."

nabo said...

great i miss my student days, though i was a bit hard on my teachers before (haha), I thank them for the knowledge they impart to their students. For all you teachers..keep on teaching! :P

scott saboy said...

Fine quote from the poet, Precious. Papers and terror profs? Perhaps one reason why some students always associate papers with professors is that, well, not really for the alliteration, but for they often find themselves wishing they could tear their papers and profs to pieces. buti na lang di pa ako propesor hekhek...

Thanks Nabo. You can always go to grad school if you're really hankering for your college days.hehe. Wenno baka adda met mamimiss mo ngamin nga nagpawang-it ti pusom idi hehe

pascale said...

Great Article!I totally agree that it is not easy to become a teacher; teaching is not a job, it is a mission...


scott saboy said...

xiexie ni... will keep that in mind. ganbei!

Edna Baluyut said...

Interesting ! It is not easy to be a teacher, it needs commitment, patience and guidance from God. Prayers are the core I should say. I've been teaching in the Institute if Nursing Fuj-UAE for 19 yrs. now but still learning how to teach.
Carry on...God bless you.

scott saboy said...

sure is, manang. ann and i look forward to chit-chatting with you and learning from your long teaching experience when you visit Baguio again. many thanks for taking the time to read the posts...