It somewhat goes without saying that every teacher should be a student of something. At least in thinking this statement I feel like it’s something I’ve heard before. However, I think this statement needs some important qualifiers about what is meant by “student.”
What I don’t mean is that every teacher should be learning, for learning in and of itself does not inherently make one a student—at least not in the formal sense. Personal explorations driven by intrinsic motivation or continued growth in a content area to remain relevant as a teacher are not examples of putting oneself into a situation where they are a student, subject to the rules, directions, and praxis of a formal teacher. This is certainly not a criticism of life-long learning. In fact, I believe learning for its own sake is imperative to not only being a better teacher but also a better human. This, however, is only to say that being a life-long learner is not what I am suggesting here. Also, by formal teacher and formal student, I don’t mean traditional. I’m not necessarily talking about a classroom setting, although that would certainly be pertinent as well. By formal I am referencing a dynamic between teacher and student in which the student is subject to the decisions of the teacher, be they good or bad, and where there is a direct relationship between the teacher’s pedagogical decisions and the success of the student. I am unwilling to go so far as to say that this scenario only works if there is more than one student assigned to said teacher, but I think the rationale behind this statement makes the most sense when the situation in which the classroom teacher is in the role of student most closely mimics their own classroom in which they play the role of teacher.
Last spring, I signed up for a six-week tennis clinic at a local racquet club. My motivation for this was doing something personal for me that looked nothing like teaching, grading, or what I do as my “day job.” I was looking for something active to do that would bring me some sense of fulfillment and also challenge me to do something new. The experience was great, so I signed up for another six-week clinic this fall. Coincidentally, I ended up with the same teacher I had in the spring semester. Steve, my instructor, without knowing it, has taught me so much about being a classroom teacher that I am indebted to him for challenging me to not only be a better tennis player but also a better public educator.
It is important to note here that although teaching tennis is nothing like teaching Economics in terms of curriculum or pedagogy, the experiences I have as a [formal] student in my tennis clinic remind me of the importance of various experiences for my students in the classroom and the role I, as teacher, should play within those experiences. My experiences echo sentiments expressed by students to their peers during passing periods and/or on classroom evaluations and reflections: “I need more feedback,” “Mr/s. [fill in name] doesn’t actually teach us; s/he just makes us do activities,” or “Mr/s. [fill in name] never corrected me when I made that mistake in class,’ etc. One of Steve’s greatest strengths as a tennis instructor is that he gives constant feedback. There is rarely a ball hit or swung at that doesn’t come with instruction, feedback, and critiques from Steve—all to the benefit of the player I might add. His feedback is timely so that each tennis student can make immediate adjustments and modifications to their stroke and swing as they go. The lesson in this for me is that I must give incessant feedback, too. Even when my students don’t ask for it. Even when they are doing practice in class and seem to have mastered the concepts. Even when I know I am going to grade the assignment later. The students need feedback all the time. They will be better students and learners when they are able to constantly make small adjustments along the way instead of having to make pronounced adjustments at the end of a major assignment where they have already consistently made a mistake or missed a foundational element that skews their answers on the entire assignment.
Additionally, Steve does not rush through the foundational pieces of hitting a tennis ball or swinging a racquet or moving one’s feet—even when the drills seem simple and/or repetitive. Steve acknowledges how critical these foundational pieces are. Even when students seem to have mastered the foundational pieces, he returns to them in other drills, in subsequent clinics, or in his feedback during games. The importance of these foundational pieces to understanding the game at large and being a great tennis player require this constant revisiting. The lesson in this for me is to constantly revisit the foundational pieces. Repetition through muscle memory (tennis) or memorization until something becomes second nature (Economics) is imperative for certain pieces. I need to decide what those are and revisit again and again. This doesn’t even require that much additional time away from the lesson of the day. Sometimes Steve does this through a quick question (to serve as a reminder) at the beginning of a drill or sometimes the foundational piece is a whole drill in and of itself. Either way, he never overlooks the importance of these pieces, and I cannot either.
Lastly, Steve is a great time-manager. He seamlessly manages group and individual instruction as needed to make sure everyone is able to grow and get better, which is why we are all there in the first place. Steve differentiates his tennis instruction by having certain (more advanced) players fulfill specific roles at time that benefit both that player and the others he needs to give more specific and individualized feedback to. The lesson in this for me is that I have to be specific and targeted with my instruction for every student. I need to have designated roles for students to fill depending on their level of understanding and skill implementation. This ensures that every student, regardless of entry level, ends up further along than when they started and grows as much as they can in my class.
To the seasoned educator or perhaps even the recent graduate of a teacher education program reading this and thinking these are all obvious no-brainers that I should’ve already known as a teacher anyway, you’re right. But that’s precisely the point. Without my experience as a student and being reminded of the benefit to me as student of a teacher employing these strategies, I began to lose sight of why these pedagogical pieces are so imperative to successful teaching and learning and happy students. I am much happier as a student when Steve is doing what he does best because I know how to make progress, improve, and holistically grow as a tennis player. As a teacher, Steve freshened my perspective on the work I do with my students each day. He reminded me that I cannot get caught in the repetition of teaching the same content each year and forget that even though its not new to me, it’s brand new to my students. He reminded me that it doesn’t take that much time to lock the foundational pieces in for students, and regardless of the time it takes, it’s worth it. The impact of these professional reminders for me could not have happened through my own individual exploration at the magnitude that they have by being a student. I had to experience being a student again to understand. I needed an amazing teacher to refresh my perspective and give me something to continue working toward.
Thanks Steve for teaching me so much about tennis and more importantly making me a better educator for my own students. You can never know how far your great teaching reaches, beyond your own students and beyond tennis. I am indebted to you.