Mike Rose, whose classic memoir Lives on the Boundary details his transformation at the hands of an English teacher, sums up the nature of our challenge as teachers these days: “The central issue in education today [is] how to provide a quality education for all students, particularly those who are, in today’s parlance, underprepared or at risk or in some way disconnected from school.” Elsewhere, Rose writes about the way our own stories, shaped by our personal experiences and background, influence not only what we teach but how. Rose, who understands and accepts the complex nature of teaching and learning more than most, said the following in an address to graduates:
Get ready to fail. A lesson you slaved over will flop, or your understanding of a kid’s problem will be way off base. This will happen during your first year or two, but believe me, it happens to all of us through the years. Education, wrote W.E.B. DuBois is “a matter of infinite experiment and frequent mistakes. For some of you, this will be the first time you’ve failed in a classroom. It will be painful and disorienting. So learn how to handle failure, for at those moments you will be vulnerable to your own insecurities and those who are cynical about young people, some unfortunately as close as the teacher’s lounge. It is imperative, then, that the minute you walk through the schoolhouse door, you start figuring out who the good teachers are. Get to know them, for when you fail, you’ll need them to convert those failures into knowledge rather than doubt or bitterness.” (2010)
It is appropriate when discussing how to teach that we stress the extent to which, as teachers, we must never forget how to learn—or that we must continue to do so. My first day of teaching, a lesson for which I had prepared for days and days went up in smoke as soon as I called the class to order. I turned to address my very first class as my mentor teacher, Bill Robinson looked on, my head with everything known to mankind about the appositive, and said, “Welcome! Today we are going to learn about–––“ and I turned to write it on the board but my mind was as blank as that board. The words, all that learning—it was all gone for the day. The silence of the class broken only by Bill Robinson dismissing the class, telling them we would meet again the next day.
And the next day I returned, having reviewed, rehearsed, and restored myself that night. And I gave that lesson with more passion than any appositive ever received, and it was good. Walking down the hall after class, a little bounce restored to my step, I dared to say to Bill, who was notorious for his exacting standards and rough judgment, “So what did you think, Bill? I thought it went quite well!” Looking down as we moved through the throng, he said only, “You have a lot to learn, a lot to learn.”
I still do. And we always will. Which is why Rose’s words are so true, so important. But as teachers, we soon realize our first and most enduring student is and always will be ourselves. Thus if you want to know, as this chapter has discussed in such detail, how to teach, begin by remembering how to learn—and never stop.