The point of all learning is the improvement of character.
This is written across the top of the whiteboard in my office. It is there as a personal and professional statement of purpose.
When I was about seven years old, right about this time of year, my dad was setting up his classroom at an elementary school in New Hudson, Michigan. It was late afternoon and golden light was flooding that room in the old schoolhouse. Dad had been watching me for the day. He’d kept me busy with tasks like lining up the desks in perfect rows, rewashing the chalkboard so that it met his standards of clean, and organizing the pens and pencils in his desk. It was perfect training for a child who would one day grow up to have very fine OCD habits of his own. Then, as my stomach reminded me that the day was nearly done, Dad suddenly stopped what he was doing and summoned my attention by calling my name.
‘Glen, there are two things you need to know and remember:
‘First, you must not teach someone unless you love them. If you find you do not truly love them, you need to stop what you are doing and focus on learning to love them. Then, you may teach.
‘Second, a student will generally only remember the subject-matter you teach them for about two or three years. Most of them will forget everything you made them learn. What will last is the improvement of their character. Whatever subject-matter you teach needs to be focused primarily upon helping them grow as human beings. Add to that a love of learning and they can teach themselves what they need to know when they need to know it.’
Why was my dad teaching this to a seven year-old?
I suppose the power of the moment stands out in the light of the fact that I remember it so vividly in middle age. I have distilled it down into lines of text in my journals over the years. I have shared dozens of retellings of the essence of the story to friends, to classes of students, and to colleagues for decades now. I have shared the story with you; because that moment shaped my character — and it continues to do so. It has shaped me in the arts of both learning and teaching. It has done much to make me who I am.