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Ten Years from Now, I’ll Bet That Your Students Don’t Really Remember Much, If Any, of the Academic Content You Taught Them

By Stevemiranda

I’ve always loved to write. When I was in middle school, I self-published a series of sports magazines and sold them to my father for $2 each. One time, I faked a fever so I could stay home from school in order to meet a self-imposed editorial deadline.

I usually got A’s on my essays for school, and won a writing award as a high school senior. In college, I joined the school newspaper staff as a freshman. By my junior year, I had earned a spot on the editorial staff. Upon graduation, I got a rare paid internship as a reporter at a major daily newspaper.

Soon after that, I realized I wanted to be a high school teacher. I had to sign up for a few pre-requisite classes in the local community college before enrolling in graduate school.  My professor was reading an essay of mine and said this to me: “So, I see your thesis here, but two pages later you have all this other stuff that doesn’t seem to relate to your thesis. Can you tell me why you included all that?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems like really important material.”

“But what does it have to do with your thesis?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I admitted.

“Then you either have to get rid of it, or change your thesis.”

I couldn’t believe it. I was 22 years old, a college graduate, and an experienced professional journalist. And I did it all without every having been taught one of the most basic rules of the craft.

* * *

I read an interesting article in the current Orion magazine called The Schools We Need: When Public Education Fails, Democracy Fails With It.” In an exploration of what ails our nation’s schools, the author makes this observation:

When I was a freshman in college, I took a foreign film class that was way over my head. One day, after watching Fellini’s The Clowns, the professor—a tall Cuban-American of some bearing—fell back against the chalkboard and said, “If you don’t cry at the end of The Clowns, you are not a human being!” I hadn’t cried. In fact, I hadn’t really understood the film. But I wanted to feel—about anything—what my professor felt about The Clowns. It wasn’t Fellini, but the teacher’s passion for Fellini, that moved and inspired me and that I recall to this day.

* * *

I didn’t learn how to write in school. I learned how to write by reading—devouring—every sports magazine I could get my hands on from 1983-1994. I would read the newspaper, too, every day without fail. I learned how to write by immersing myself in a world of words that interested me, then mimicking my favorite writers.

Later, as a journalist, I learned by watching my editors carve up my work. I took their feedback and used it to improve for the next time.

I think this is how most people learn just about everything: absorbing what’s going on around them, trying things, and learning from mistakes. When kids walk into our classrooms, we think we’re teaching them academic material. The truth is, we’re not really teaching academic material—well maybe we are, but the students aren’t learning it in any meaningful way.

We’re teaching them something much more important.

We’re teaching them about what it means to be an adult in society. If you’re a classroom teacher, are you a role model for integrity and professionalism? Do you love coming to work? Do you offer your whole self to your students? Do you ever make yourself vulnerable in front of them? Do you teach in a way that shows them just how endlessly complex and fascinating the world is?

* * *

Ten years from now, I’ll bet that your students don’t really remember much, if any, of the academic content you taught them. Except for the rare moment of epiphany, the thing they’ll remember about you—if they remember you at all—is how you made them feel.

(Join the discussion at www.facebook.com/reeducate. Get updates at www.twitter.com/reeducate.)

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