Sunday, September 5, 2010

Be A Student

If you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.

Most college professors that I know have spent a long time being the experts in the classroom. They are the ones who walk in each day with all the knowledge. They are the people in charge. Trust me, that gets to be a very comfortable feeling. At times, teachers can forget the feeling of being a student.

Consequently, whenever possible, I try to take classes where I am the student. I prefer to take classes in subjects where I have little or no knowledge. Over the years, I have taken classes in jewelry making, Russian culture, portrait photography, creative writing, and ballroom dancing. I think I managed to be terrible in all of those classes. I like being the person in the room who is worried about looking stupid. I like sitting through a 75 minute class where I am bored to death after 10 minutes. I like taking a class where I listen to a teacher and try (sometimes hopelessly) to figure out what he would possibly be explaining.

If you have forgotten what it is like to be a student, it can be very difficult to be a good teacher. When is the last time you took a class so that you were the student and not the person in charge?

A few years back, I took a two-day class in large format photography (think Ansel Adams or Matthew Brady). For some reason, I really wanted to do well so I spent the first day of the class taking careful notes and making sure that I understood every step. I asked questions and focused my attention on every demonstration.

At the end of that first day, each of the four members of the class took two pictures with one of those huge cameras as we crouched under a black cloth. The teacher was going to develop those pictures overnight and we would critique them the following day.

I came back, the next morning, with great anticipation. I had been so careful to do everything correctly and I really wanted to see the finished product. I was so optimistic. When we walked in, the teacher informed us that “three sets of pictures were great but one set did not come out at all.”

Immediately, I felt my stomach clutch up as I mumbled to myself “Oh please, don’t let me be the one who messed up. I tried so hard to get it right.”

The pictures did not have names on them so the teacher held up the first batch and one of the students identified them as her pictures. I am now down to 1 chance in 3 for being the incompetent fool. “Okay,” I said to myself “you were so careful—surely, your pictures were fine. Surely, someone else made a mistake.”

The teacher held up another set of pictures and one of the other men in class held up his hand. Now, we are down to the final set of good prints. By elimination, the dummy will now be unmasked and the other three people and the teacher will know who failed to learn the lesson. I can actually hear my heart beating – no one wants to appear stupid. “I want mine to be good; I want mine to be good” I silently chant, almost in prayer.

Well, the last prints went to the other remaining student and I was left to confess that I was the person who apparently couldn’t complete the assignment. Everyone was nice and told me that such things often happen with these big cameras. But, one person in the group looked dumb, and it was me.

When I went to my own class the next day, where I was once again in control, I looked out at my students with a bit more awareness. No matter how hard you try, sometimes things go wrong and you feel stupid and feeling stupid does not often encourage learning. At least on that one day, I was a bit more careful with my explanations and I had a little more patience when the students did not grasp the concepts immediately. On that day, I was a better teacher. And, I was a better teacher for having been a student—not 40 years ago but on the previous day.

Take some classes. Take hard classes. Be brave and put yourself into the student role. The king and the peasants really need to work together and if you are always the king, it is very difficult to understand what it is like to be a peasant.

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