By Ernest O. Melby from his book
The Teacher and Learning, 1963
Available from the Center for Applied Research in Education, Inc.,
70 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10011
A teacher says: “I can accept my good students, those who behave and do good work, but I can’t accept those who do not work, who have the wrong attitude and who cause me trouble.” They forget that it’s the acceptance of all that gives power to the teacher. In fact, it is in relation to students who are difficult that the teacher’s true qualities are demonstrated. We all find it easy to accept those who lend themselves to our designs. It is in their relationship to those who cause them trouble, who are dirty and poorly dressed, and who fail to achieve that teachers prove their beliefs.
It is the essence of the point of view here presented that only a complete gift of oneself makes the teacher an artist. Teaching is a jealous profession; it is not a sideline. This is not only because of the problem of time, nor because of the impact of lesser efforts on pupils: it is because of the effect on the teacher himself. It is only as we give fully of ourselves that we can become our best selves. Thus halfway measures and attitudes of whatever kind reduce our effectiveness.
When we ask the teacher to give himself fully to his students, to his colleagues, to his community, and to humanity, we are thus only asking him to be maximally effective. Moreover, it is only as he gives himself that he can experience completely the joys and satisfactions of being a teacher. In this situation he is in the same position as any artist. Frustrated artists are often those who for one reason or another are unable or unwilling to make a complete gift of themselves to their art. Similarly, the unhappiest teachers are those who bemoan the weaknesses of their pupils and the conditions under which they work and who fail to sense that it is their own half-hearted efforts that defraud them.
One measure of the teacher’s willingness to give of himself is his accessibility to his students, his willingness to spend time with them. One difficulty here is the narrow conception that often prevails about what it means to teach. To teach means more than to lecture or explain before a group of students. The best teachers influence their students more in their personal, individual contacts with them than in strict classroom situations. If teaching and learning are complementary processes, if the teacher is to teach by learning and if his teaching is to be directed toward an individual, he must know that individual. And how is he to know that individual if he spends little or no time with him alone?
Another illusion defeats us. It is that there is some magic in lecturing and in the hearing of recitations. We want as much time for this as possible. We begrudge taking time to work with individual pupils. Yet we know very little about the actual effectiveness of what we do. Is it not at least possible that our classroom work would be greatly increased in effectiveness if only we spent more time with our pupils as individuals? We seem to be obsessed with teaching. We know that no one can educate another person, that all of us must educate ourselves. The teacher’s role is that of a helper in this process. The question is: How can we best help?