Learning Moments of the Teacher

The best teachers I have known often say that one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching is that you can continually learn from your students. I have been wanting to record some important moments that I have experienced with my students in the classroom over the past spring and summer semesters, and since I just attended a workshop that emphasized “cooperative” dynamics for education, this is a timely post.

This past summer, when I taught the class on love and sex, I had a number of unexpected challenges. It may have been the nature of the class content, or perhaps it is that I am that new young instructor whom students feel more entitled to challenge, but one issue that I encountered from a number of students was an unwillingness to think. I noticed a tendency for students to walk in, sit down, and express their opinions. The problem, however, was that their opinions where their prior opinions, not pieces of their current thought processes. In other words, they could walk in, say what they wanted to say, and think they would get participation credit, without doing the reading, without listening to other people’s comments, and all without spending even a minute of actually engaging in any critical thought. I would reiterate that anyone could come into a class room with prior opinions, and I expected that many people could and did do this, but I was interested in using those opinions as a place to begin a thought process, and not accepting them as a satisfactory end.

The problem with such “opinions” is that they would manifest in some students’ attitude where they think “philosophy is all about debate and arguing with other people.” Thus, they would come into the room and just state something. They say, “I think this is why it happens…..” and that ellipses could go on for minutes…and minutes…and minutes…..all without much evidence of critical thought, without specific reference to the text, and without leaving much space for other students to respond. On one particular day, a student did just that and ended by saying, “What? After all of that no one has anything to say? I thought that would have provoked some reaction out of people. I guess I am right then.”

Of course he wasn’t right. And it wasn’t that no one had anything to say. It was perhaps that there was just too much one could say. His “speech” of sorts actually had so many holes in it that I, and maybe others, didn’t know where to begin. But I resisted the impulse to interrupt him in the middle of it and correct his missteps in reasoning, and when he was done I still resisted the temptation to start on my laundry list of rebuttals and attempt to “school him.” I resisted simply because it was obvious that it wouldn’t have even mattered. He wasn’t the sort who would listen anyway.

So, instead, I chose to let him talk and talk and talk. And when he was done, I responded by saying, “I don’t think the fact that no one has anything to say to you right now shows that you “won” the debate.” And then I pointed out that he had not left room for people to respond, and how this showed a certain degree of non-openness to genuine dialogue, thoughtful discussion, and real interest in hearing what other people thought about the issue at hand. It showed that he wanted to show others what he thought, obviously because he thought he was already in the right, without being interested in hearing what others had to say. And I did this in front of the whole class.

Maybe I indulged a little too much in making his “rant” a public display of what not to do. And maybe my reaction pointed too much of a finger at him. But given that I had already had a private conversation with him where I encouraged him to listen more, try to understand a different perspective before responding, and mostly, to just pause…..I felt he was the one who made a demonstration out of himself. And I thought to myself, it maybe good to highlight what had just happened for all of the other students, too. They were there. They heard his rant. And they didn’t have anything to say. And I wanted to offer at least one idea about why and how that had all happened.

What I didn’t expect was that this would become a theme for the summer. In my private conversation with him, and then in other conversation with other “difficult” students, and even in my relationship, the theme of communication, openness to listening, and a willingness to not assert one’s “opinion” continually presented itself. And in these conversations I would point out that here was a moment where learning philosophy is not all that separate from other life lessons. Reading a text charitably, participating in group discussions openly, and finding ways to actually approach an issue and others without the antagonistic attitude that everything is a debate where one’s task is to be “right” requires a set of skills that I find helpful for being a good-hearted, kind, open-minded, and *likeable* person. But it also seems like such a disposition seems necessary to be a good philosopher, as well as a responsible citizen, and a good friend, partner, family member, etc.

And, oh the irony of life! Of course, I ended up needing to revisit my own advice. And perhaps that is a really good thing because it might mean I am on the right track. I, as a student, find myself needing to wait a bit before I raise my hand because I think I have something really important to say that would make the discussion more interesting. And I catch myself feeling defensive in relationships too, and then I remind myself to pause, listen, and try to understand before I react. I know I can have the attitude that I “know better” in the classroom and in real life.

So, I learn from myself. And I learn from my “problem students.” and I learn about myself. And the philosophy is relevant to life, just as I tried to explain to my students who wonder why girls don’t like dating them, or why they don’t have many friends, or why people don’t respond to them. And life is relevant to philosophy. And I realize that I have a lot more to learn in a lot of ways about a lot of things.

There is more to say, but this theme will continue for a while, so I’ll let this rest for now and return to it later.

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