What do teachers do?

Teaching places a spotlight on the role that other people inevitably play in our success. No matter how brilliant the teacher, his or her success depends on students who learn. If there is no learning, there has been no teaching.

Tonight I watched my son perform in his high school's production of Oklahoma. The production relies on the work of amazing teachers; it would not be possible without their talent and their hours. Yet what is being taught is rarely the same as what is being instructed. While it is true that the kids all learn something of the techniques and technicalities of performance, they learn so much more.

So what were the teachers doing that was separate from the instructions they gave and provided for such leaps in understanding and such dramatic (pun intended!) new behaviours? Clearly, they made it possible for students to learn in rich and complex ways: to learn by observing the teachers as models, by following instructions, by experimenting with different skills and approaches, and by interacting with one another. Clearly, they are immensely successful teachers because their students have learned deeply and well.

Tomorrow, I will teach adults who teach adults that training is more than providing information and inspiration. I will give them an experience in which they become aware that their learning is inevitably self-directed and inevitably influenced by those around them, including teachers. As teachers, they will succeed when their students integrate not only the material they teach but the fact of their teaching into the way they think and behave outside the training room. They will be eager to learn this because it corresponds to their best experiences as learners. They will be terrified to learn this, because it suggests that their success cannot be entirely measured or predicted from the front of the training room.

Virtually all of us are in the same boat. While a few may run races where success is measured only in terms of one's own efforts, many more do our best work knowing that we can influence our own success but never control it. We know that someone else has to finish what we start, to complete our thoughts and our actions with their thoughts and their actions. We know that we can only really get better when these other people also get better. That is both scary and liberating.

That's what I saw on the faces of the music and drama teachers as they watched their students tonight. They were willing to look into the mouth of the lion and know everything that might go wrong. And then they were willing to celebrate the always sudden release into knowing that, once again, everyone learned more than they had been taught. Especially the teachers.


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