Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Maintaining a Life

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Maintaining a Life

Article excerpt

To teach well, teachers need to be fair to themselves and help students take responsibility for their own learning, Ms. Metzger explains in a series of letters to a student teacher.


Dear Christine Greenhow,

You have asked one of the hardest questions about teaching or perhaps about any profession. You have asked how a teacher moves from competence to excellence. I could postpone an answer by saying that your question is premature; you have been a student teacher for only a few weeks, and your task now is to learn the basic skills of teaching. But I admire your thinking about the larger questions. You are not getting mired in the panic of inexperience. So let me try to answer as best I can.

How does a teacher move from competence to excellence? Partially it's just experience. If you expect excellence immediately, you degrade the craft of teaching. You would not expect to do brain surgery during your first month in medical school.

My advice is to be gentle with yourself. Teaching is an art form. All art, done with integrity, is excruciatingly difficult. You are just learning. As my mother, a gifted math teacher, bluntly told me during my first year of teaching, "For the first three years of teaching, new teachers should pay the schools for the privilege of practicing on the children. If you struggle enough, you'll get better."

You are struggling to improve. I watch you searching for the perfect assignment, the perfect classroom activity, the perfect lesson plan. Perhaps you are looking for answers in the wrong places. Instead of seeking just the right tidbit of knowledge or pedagogy, I suggest that you look at the larger picture. Think about what it means to be educated.

It seems to me that the missing ingredient in the lessons you teach is the subtle and explicit message that education is important. Students must be dedicated to their own growth, enthusiastic about academic work, and willing to take intellectual risks.

You must convince adolescents that being educated will enhance their lives. Students need to know, believe, and accept the idea that what they are doing is important. They are becoming educated adults; they are not just playing school. Christine, I know that you value your own education. You enjoy your intellectual life. You are in this profession because you believe that education matters. Now you must convey those values to the students.

My colleague Liz Kean teases me about how I convey the importance of education to my students. "Kids think your class is the most important event since the discovery of ice cream," she says. "You insist that what they are doing is important, that it matters in the great scheme of the universe. Even during routine work, you `call in the cosmos.'"

I have never seen the concept of "calling in the cosmos" addressed in the research literature on teaching. Perhaps the ideal is too lofty or too unquantifiable to be included in teaching theory. Still, all the outstanding teachers I have known at Brookline High School, at Harvard, and at Brown University regularly "call in the cosmos," even if they would never use this silly term.

Strong teachers convey to their students a passion for a particular discipline, theory, or idea. But these teachers go beyond their own enthusiasm for the subject; they convince their students that learning has intrinsic value. When you are in their classes, you believe that the material matters.

Let me give you a concrete example of calling in the cosmos. Please remember that I developed this lesson after a decade of teaching. I want you to think about calling in the cosmos as an ideal, not as a requirement for a new teacher. When you first begin to teach, you can barely think about yourself, the students, and the material simultaneously, much less the cosmos. This sample is meant only to clarify the concept, not to intimidate you. …

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