How I see Teaching
In the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, actress Maggie Smith, who is impersonating a dedicated teacher at a girl's boarding school, defines teaching in a memorable way when she says: “I am in the business of putting old heads onto young bodies.” The essence of teaching translates well with the use of metaphors. I like to think of it as a mission: on the one hand the transference of knowledge in a specific discipline, the handing down of an educational lore from one generation to the next, and on the other, the shaping of young minds by helping them develop, acquire the analytical and critical skills that will help them think for themselves.
What is teaching? And, conversely, what is learning?
Beyond the transference and acquisition of knowledge and of intellectual skills, these are essentially the two ends of a communication process, and as such, a two way street in which both parties give and take, gain and grow. In the interaction involved, critical minds will be awakened, human intelligence and know-how developed in order for future workers and private individuals to function at peak ability in an ever-changing, demanding and competitive world.
What do students appreciate in a teacher?
Patience, approachability, openness to questions, fairness coupled with discipline. What wins their respect? Expertise, clarity, method and organization. A teacher must also be flexible. No two classes are alike, no two classes are ever taught in the same way. One cannot apply a fixed permanent formula all the time. Syllabi and material may remain the same but the student body varies. They may ask the same questions, make the same mistakes, the class atmosphere however will be unique. In the interaction professor-students there is some intangible element which makes the teaching/learning process come alive, in the same way that a play only comes alive on the stage with actors and a director and each performance is unique.
On the other hand, what makes a good student?
One who values the learning process and not just the reward system, one who does not look for shortcuts and ways to cheat, is not so bent on getting A’s just for the sake of a good grade average, one who does not cram just before an exam, only to forget everything two weeks later. A good student is one who is honest, consistent, makes steady progress and, seeing the whole picture, builds up on skills in order to become competitive, efficient, ethically-minded, dependable in the workplace, and who goes on to have a productive career.
Teaching French: the whole picture.
The subject which I teach, French, is demanding and far-reaching in that it encompasses various other disciplines. At the college level, a French professor teaches more than just a foreign language: beyond the grammar, vocabulary and communication skills of the first four semesters, content material is taught using the foreign language as a vector. Advanced students of French at St. John’s are introduced to French and Francophone literature, culture and civilization, art history, in courses entirely conducted in French. They are offered the skills of translation, and even specialties such as business French and Paris in French culture. In all advanced classes critical thinking is called upon, problem solving is required. In a typical literature course students will be asked to write a well organized and coherent essay expressing their views on a particular topic, weighing the pros and cons of a particular situation, for instance comparing and contrasting two poems, two literary theories or two characters in a play. In a civilization course they might have to make a presentation requiring library and Internet research, using history to learn from the past, drawing the outcome of the crusades or reflecting upon the achievements of the French Revolution, developing a sense of aesthetics by learning about the theories behind classical painting or impressionism. And in a translation course, faced with the structural or metalinguistic problems of translation which cannot be literal, they will have to decide what strategies to choose from a panoply of professional methods so as to give a skillful translation, one that will not prompt the reader to say “it sounds like a translation”. Overall, I aim to provide my students with the means to understand and appreciate a culture and civilization other than their own, thereby broadening their intellectual horizon and preventing a sterile attitude of national chauvinism. In a context of world globalization this is a key concept in order to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings that stem from an inability to shift perspectives. For, indeed, to function as a true democracy the world must be a multi-polar place in which no single culture is the dominant one, and in which all cultures are appreciated. Life is diversity.
Teaching: a demanding but rewarding undertaking.
In the final analysis, teaching is paradoxically one of the most demanding and at the same time one of the most rewarding of professions. Teachers have a great responsibility towards society: they must facilitate the development of young minds, help to shape them and thereby help to shape the future. Good teachers love their jobs, and, working in an intellectually stimulating environment, are challenged to constantly sharpen their skills. They communicate their enthusiasm for learning, awaken intellectual curiosity in their students, help them find their special interests, open windows on their world, and impart a life-long motivation to learn. A memorable teacher should also be a mentor, a role model, one who encourages students to grow, mature, become confident in their abilities, learn how to work on their own and also as a team, and develop skills to get to their full potential for whatever it is they will be called to do in the world. Montaigne, the French essayist and pedagogue, expressed it clearly in his inimitable style four hundred years ago: “Mieux vaut une tête bien faite qu’une tête bien pleine”, which roughly translates as “Better a brain trained to think well than one crammed full of knowledge”. This, in a nutshell, is what education should be all about.