Teaching life may be more important than subject

Published 10:41 am Monday, May 7, 2012

A teenage girl I know was dropped from riding lessons by her instructor, because her harp lessons conflicted too often with riding lessons. The instructor angrily demanded the girl choose between riding and harp, because the instructor refused to tolerate divided interests. The student was to be fully a rider and she refused to allow her both to ride horses and play harp. Many adults, obsessed with their own special interest, need to recognize they cannot expect every student to become as narrowly focused as they, because growing up requires tentative commitments and sampling interests to make a final commitment to a particular interest.

I have seen such narrow mindedness all my life, and I continue to see it everywhere. I fear some teachers are so obsessed they lose perspective and perceive everything and everyone in subjective terms of their own special interests.

It was a riding instructor in this case, but I have little doubt there are more than a few harp teachers who expect their students to forget about horses and concentrate on harp. Hockey coaches require players to be at the rink at 6 a.m. and back again at 3:30 p.m., with homework put off until the time they should be in bed.

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It gets worse on higher or advanced levels. Some college professors are only interested in those students who major in their own field. Law school professors who have been successful in public interest law and teach this form of practice are disappointed in students interested in family law. I empathize with them, but there is more to law practice than this.

Seminary professors are expected to prepare students for the practice of ministry, e.g., the pastorate. This is so of those who teach ecclesiastical history and those who teach systematic theology as well as those who teach preaching or counseling. On several occasions, I have asked seminary professors to name the two or three graduates of whom they are most proud. The historians name those now teaching history, and the theologians name those who are themselves theologians. It is rare for one to name a pastor or missionary who is especially effective or productive in the actual practice of ministry.

Such passion and commitment is not all bad, mind you. I feel it normal for teachers to be eager their students follow through with lessons and go beyond to become an even more competent practitioner than the teacher has been. Nonetheless, any worthwhile field offers much to any student despite what becomes their chosen field. A Spanish teacher should recognize the contribution he has made to a student who becomes a competent engineer without ever necessarily using Spanish in her work. A biology teacher should experience great pride when her student becomes a successful sales executive. Language and science are part of life, and a graduate who goes on to live a full life uses everything learned in school.

An element of this is almost necessary to teach effectively. If the teacher is not noticeably excited about the subject or skill, it is not likely the student will become excited. More, in most situations the teacher needs to be exceedingly excited for the student to become even nominally so.

Teachers and coaches are not the only people who become guilty of shortsightedness. It is even more frequent among parents, if for no other reason than there are more of them. Not a few fathers, who themselves failed to make varsity, fanatically drive their sons in football as compensation. It might be those who made the minor leagues of pro ball are all the more driving for sons to make the majors.

A mother who was homecoming queen understandably feels unusual pride if her daughter makes it. The daughter who most merits pride, however, is she who could compete successfully but disdains it for fear of appearing vain and arrogant. She might recognize life offers more important opportunities than being homecoming queen.

A teacher pleased me by her answer to, “What do you teach, history, economics, or what?” She replied firmly and with conviction, “I teach students.” Parents need to focus not on making their children like themselves but genuinely their own selves.