Teaching is Learning

Image by r1g00 from Pixabay

Lifelong learning should happen to us all, and I am no exception. I remember (with some embarrassment) my first year of teaching, when I was having a dispute with a noisy fourteen year-old student in a rowdy all-boys class. He loudly complained that the work was (expletive), and in a momentary fury, I told him to stop giving me (expletive) in return. The class went deathly silent. I told the boy I would see him after class. They all sat there, working silently, astonished that I had been angered to the point of swearing, and duly anticipating that I would harshly punish their classmate after their class had finished. As for me, I was sitting at my desk in turmoil, my (barely started) teaching career flashing before my eyes: I had sworn at a student! What if his parents complained to the Principal? What should I do?

I resolved that I should set an example, even if it left me open to admitting my own wrongdoing. At the end of class, the boy came up to my desk to receive punishment. Instead, I initiated the conversation: ‘I lost my temper and spoke wrongly. I’m sorry. I apologise.’ He quickly replied, “Sir, I did the same and I’m sorry too.” We shook hands and negotiated a fresh start tomorrow, while the rest of the class stared in stunned astonishment. That was the end of the matter forever: no student gossiped in the school yard; no parent complained – although I did immediately report myself to the Principal, who dismissed the incident with a forgiving wave of the hand.

Fast forward about twenty years, when I was teaching a book about the Holocaust. The students discussed how many disparate people had died in concentration camps – including Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, families, kids and babies… and gay people. In what I assume was an attempt to lighten the mood of the room, one boy commented jokingly, “Gays? Well, at least Hitler got something right, eh?” The class fell silent, waiting for me to express outrage at such intolerance – but this time, with the benefit of life experience and maybe a splinter of wisdom, I did not lose my temper. Instead, I quietly leaned over and said confidentially to him, “Do you really want to say something that agrees with Adolf Hitler?” Then I smiled reassuringly and the study resumed without further comment – until the end of the lesson, at which point the boy spontaneously stood up, and apologised loudly to the entire class for his comment. I realised that he had learnt not only empathy for others, and humility to admit that he had been wrong, but he had also intuited that he had a personal responsibility to rectify his wrongdoing towards others.

Life had come full circle for me as a teacher.

Lifelong learning goes on forever, and allows us the privilege of learning to be kind to ourselves, and to fellow travellers on our journey through life.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn

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