I have been thinking about teachers. These days, the news is about teacher unions and mediation, teacher performance evaluations, the pros and cons of Teach for America. But instead of all that, I have been thinking about teachers and what it means to have a teacher, what it means to be a teacher.
My parents were teachers, and when I was a child we would run into their students while out running errands. They always seemed stunned to find their teachers, my parents, out in the world doing regular things. Even now, many years after my mother has stopped teaching, she will meet a former student. “Mrs. Kay!” the student will exclaim. “It’s so good to see you.” We remember our teachers.
On Friday, October 25 – as I have for 11 years on that date – I remembered one of them. Paul Wellstone was my political science professor at Carleton College. I took my first class with him winter term of my freshman year. Political Science 10 was an introductory class, and nothing in the course description would label it as life changing. But it was. Paul flew into class with a notepad and a few books under his arm, wearing a turtleneck and polyester athletic coaching pants. His hair was curly and wild. He brought passion to Intro to Poli Sci. If I sat in the front row, I might get brushed with a waving hand or sprayed by exuberant words.
We learned about poverty and inequality. We learned about social movements. We were challenged to analyze. I found my voice. Paul taught me and so many other students how to say what mattered to us. How to connect our compassion to our politics. How to turn that energy into action. The year I graduated, Paul ran successfully for the U.S. Senate.
After he died on October 25, 2002, I told my then young son about who Paul was and what he meant to me. He listened carefully, then went to school the next day to tell his own teacher, “Paul Wellstone was a great teacher.”
Several years later, I was in law school and taking jurisprudence – the philosophy of law – from john powell. Who would think that in a philosophy class the study of law would come to life? Our reasons for going to law school, for wanting to understand right and wrong, justice and injustice, emerged from under torts and contracts. The way into this analysis was the history of race in America. How did a system of laws work in a racially divided society?
That same year I took a class from Suzanna Sherry, one of the best teachers I almost never saw. First Amendment was a “class” that met as a small group of five students. We acted as an appellate court, receiving a new case each week that we had to decide. We met in a dusty corner of the Law Review office, asking hard questions about facts cleverly tied to actual First Amendment case law. We puzzled and voted, and then took turns writing opinions, and sometimes concurring or dissenting opinions. We met with Professor Sherry maybe once. And none of us ever forgot that class.
At the Montessori school my sons have attended, a key part of learning is teaching. In multi-age classrooms, an older child will work on math concepts with a younger child. A younger child who is really good at something has the chance to teach someone older. Montessori classrooms tend to be larger, with the goal that students work together and help each other, less dependent on an adult to lead the way. My older son’s geometry teacher told me that teaching others was the very best way to master a concept. So students are growing into natural teachers of all kinds, sharing what they know while transforming themselves.
I believe that teaching is a gift but also a skill. The hard work of developing those skills should not be undervalued. Nor should the impact that teachers have, whether they realize it or not, on the lives of students. My teachers saw hundreds, even thousands of students come through their classrooms. Which one would happen to hear a story or learn a lesson that changed how they saw the world? When would each student unwrap a passion for learning and discover her own clear voice through the gentle guidance of a teacher? How would that teaching ripple out into the world?
I have never been much of a teacher myself, but for one skill. I have taught countless friends, co-workers, neighbors, and even children how to knit. Each one required individual attention, careful review of the technique, encouragement, shared problem solving, and creativity. Those knitters have gone on to teach others, building generations of knitters. My son’s cello teacher once showed him a family tree of cellists, and where he fit on one of the many branches as her student. So we knitters are connected, too. And though my knitting skills have not changed much over the years, I have been transformed by teaching.