By Naphtali Hoff
The conversation caught me by surprise. Perhaps it was because I had lost contact with him for nearly three years. Maybe it was because I was being celebrated when I had really come to celebrate the achievements of others. Possibly, it was because the brief exchange would alter the way that I viewed my role as educator.
About eight years ago, I was in attendance at the high-school graduation of students that I had taught as freshman and sophomores. Today was their big day — a time to reflect and celebrate their great achievement.
At the post-graduation celebration, a young man approached me. He was in one of my freshman classes, for one period each day. The next year, he transferred to a different school in the community. He approached me at his former classmates’ graduation and said, “I want you to know that this past year my English teacher assigned our class to write about someone who made a difference in my life. The subject was supposed to be a person that really made a difference in your life. I chose to write about you.”
I was flattered, but intrigued. I knew this student for but one year. He was in my class for 40 minutes a day and had many other teachers. “Why?” I asked. “Why did you write about me?”
The answer that he gave has transformed the way that I think about education, and about life in general for that matter.
“I wrote about you because you were always having fun when you taught.”
Mind you, the fun he was referencing was not joke-telling, sports-related banter or the playing of games. To be sure, there were moments of levity in the class, including all of the above. But that was not his intent. He sensed a genuine passion in the class, an excitement in my instruction as well as a desire to engage the students in the lessons and experiences of the subjects under discussion. To him, I wasn’t simply teaching. I was also having “fun.” And he was right. Teaching really was fun. As well it should be.
In many ways, technology has changed if not transformed the face of education. We can captivate our students in so many more ways today than ever before. We can and do provide ample opportunities for students to self-engage in the content, such as with cooperative and blended learning. We can give our children access to so much more than we ever were exposed to as kids.
Teachers today have taken on a new role. From the “sage on the stage” we have become the “guide on the side.” We put things out in front of our students and allow them to become selective consumers of content in a manner that is more reflective of real-life circumstances. We offer them many more opportunities to share and collaborate, to embrace the spirit of 21st century learning with the hope that it will translate into real-life, workplace-friendly skills.
However, with all of the great things that technology and other educational trends offer our students, we must remember that we, as teachers, are still the most important element in our classrooms. Not only do we serve as instructional leaders, providing content, guidance and clarification, but we also are the primary source of engagement and inspiration.
Technology does so much for us and our students, offering exciting, visually appealing ways to take in and practice knowledge and skills. Still, there is nothing that inspires a child like an engaged teacher, someone who wears their enthusiasm on their sleeve and provides the caring, inspired human touch that brings young minds to explore and discover.
I will never forget my brief exchange with my former student. On that June day this young man gave me a tremendous insight, not to mention this burst of inspiration and fulfillment. His words changed the way that I teach and engage, and have offered me a new window into the opportunity called life.