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January 26th, 2021
Many teachers fall into an understandable trap slyly laid by the ego. Being the one in the know there is a pride in the ability to dispense and provide one’s superior set of knowledge to those in the role of ‘student’. More than a few teachers, professors or just friends trying to help parade their privileged position with more than a little pomp. It’s an understandable trap because teaching, by default, has an air altruism and generosity attached to it as though the credentials wipe away any flaws in actual performance. The real world of course functions on the opposite principle, actual performance tops credentials every time.
The very best teachers understand that teaching is not a privileged position in terms of knowledge but a special liminal role. The goal is to get someone who can’t or doesn’t know, to understand or do. It’s perhaps poetic but a little quaint to say a teacher is a shepherd in the process of someone else’s learning. This is true, but it goes beyond this. A great teacher doesn’t teach any one subject but teaches a student how to learn. The metaphorical equivalent would be a shepherd that trains all it’s sheep to be wolves, capable of taking care of themselves all on their own without the help of the shepherd.
Autodidacitism is a key to great teaching. This is self-teaching, or learning on your own. The double role that a person casts themselves in creates an important curve of perspective. The self-learner isn’t just trying to figure out something new, but also paying attention to aspects and trends of their own learning. The self-learner has to shepherd their own motivation, cultivating it and protecting it against too much frustration. This is a crucial aspect that often isn’t present with an actual teacher who provides encouragement and reassurance that the next step of success isn’t far off. The self-learner has to nurture motivation in the absence of knowing what’s around the next bend, and this skill, if honed becomes an exceptional asset when that self-learner in turn becomes a teacher for someone else.
The art of learning becomes a topic independent of subject, and the pure autodidactic clues in fairly quickly to the fact that if the art of learning can be honed than all the world’s knowledge and know-how suddenly becomes a split oyster. There’s simply no contest between someone who learns one thing well, and another person who learns how to learn.
Great teachers are themselves great learners, and because of this, the division between student and teacher remains forever blurred as the teacher learns alongside the student. A classroom or a mentorship, no matter how behind or oblivious the student is an opportunity for the teacher. Often that opportunity is to learn deeper about the subject at hand by exploring a student’s unique slow-motion capture of the topic. Most likely a student asks a question never before considered by a teacher. A weak teacher will freeze up at the idea of something they don’t know, and usually try to dodge the question. Whereas a great teacher grows evermore curious with such unconsidered angles. But beyond this, the opportunity to understand more about the art of learning is perpetually on hand in any classroom. The swirl of student perspective, patchy in it’s blindness of the topic is the real object at hand for any teacher.
Knowledge is secondary. The classroom as a laboratory is primary. A teacher who is in tune with this meta-subject of learning irregardless of topic becomes doubly equipped for future students, by both having a deeper understanding of the subject and a deeper understanding of how students learn that subject.
The outlooks of the good and the bad teacher could not be more antithetical. While the gatekeeper of knowledge is concerned with the ego’s pleasure of a power dynamic, the great teacher has never stopped seeing the classroom as a place to learn, not just for the student, but for that teacher who remains a student.
The great teacher becomes a student in the art of teaching, which is no different than a student who pursues the art of learning.