Teacher as Student

The poet Theodore Roethke reportedly told his students that their grade was based not only on what they learned from him but how much he learned from them. The notion was that if you sit in my class for a semester and say or do nothing that gives me any insight into myself, my discipline, or this world we share then you could not possibly have distinguished yourself.

In Wayne Booth's The Vocation of a Teacher (Chicago 1988), he reflects on a life of teaching English while addressing a group of graduates preparing to enter the field of teaching. Near the end he says, "Every class should be for you as much as for the students, and it cannot be that unless there are many moments of opening out into unforeseen learning" (216).

This notion, that we should always be learning in our own classes, no matter how many years we have taught, invites us to leave room for a little danger or discomfort in our classes. If we walk into our own classes feeling ourselves complete, then we are not so different from the pilot who crashed his plane recently because he had it on autopilot when he should not have.

Today my freshman and senior classes were wrestling with big ideas, concepts I wanted them to grapple with so they could come up with their own notions (instead of simply receiving mine). What made it most interesting were the moments they saw what I could not, taught me to see what I had not known to look for. I was the attentive pilot, never on autopilot, but they were also an attentive crew (as opposed to quiet passengers) pointing things out along the way that I had not noticed. As I brought us in for a landing at the bell, we had all had moments, to borrow from Booth, "of opening out into unforeseen learning."

And thus it was a good class, one in which we were all students and teachers.

It is worth returning to Roethke for a moment, to end with his own words about learning which, he reminds us, is really about being alert, awake:

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

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One Response to “Teacher as Student”

  1. Another neat post Jim. I’ve quoted the first paragraph on one of my class nings. Do our students realize that it’s two-way, I wonder?

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