‘I can’t be a teacher — I’m just learning. I don’t know enough to teach.’
The woman, a student in one of my classes, sat across the small round table from me. She was a few years older than I was. We were both already middle-aged. I sat there thinking about what she said. She was a year away from graduating with her master’s degree; about the same time she would have her first job — in which she would be required to teach.
She looked at me expectantly. I sat there, thinking and smiling.
‘Aren’t you going to say anything?’ she said with a note of irritation in her voice.
‘What would you like me to say?’ I asked. She looked exasperated.
‘Tell me I can’t do this. Tell me I’m immature. Tell me a grown woman with a grown child should face up to responsibilities and realize that there comes a time when you stop being a student and start being the teacher — when you stop being the taker and become the giver . . . or something like that.’
‘That’s what you need me to say to you? Seems you’ve said it already.’ Now she looked angry. ‘It’s not that easy,’ I continued. ‘You want to be a “finished” product. You want to be done learning. But, if you ever become that, you will be an awful teacher.’
She blinked and looked confused.
‘A good teacher is really only a good student who helps her or his students to find their way for a while. A good teacher doesn’t know everything. They know something about the kinds of questions to ask — useful ways of thinking, seeking out knowledge and experience that will help a person grow. Sometimes a good teacher has knowledge to share. Sometimes very little. Great knowers are not always great teachers. Teaching is something different. It is about how to learn.’ I stopped talking and spent a moment watching my student think.
‘But, I don’t even know what to think of things a lot of the time. I am trying to figure that out,’ she replied.
‘Then try showing those you teach how you are trying to figure things out. They may be looking to do that themselves. You can let them watch you. They can figure out if what they see helps.’
‘What if it doesn’t?’
‘I am terrified. I feel so vulnerable. I feel like a fraud,’ she said, her eyes becoming sharp and insistent.
‘Me, too,’ I told her. ‘Teaching and learning are both acts of trust. They are both acts of vulnerability. We can’t grow unless we are vulnerable. Vulnerability can be forced or given freely. But it is always there in a student-teacher relationship. On both sides. You will even find out, over time, that whatever role you think you are in from one moment to the next, you may, in fact, be the teacher who is the student or the student who is the teacher. Like I said — generally, if you are good at one you will also be the other.’