Thirty-eight years ago, in 7th grade, I took Latin and failed. I went on to a successful career in music and teaching, but that humiliating experience would haunt me for years. Then, last fall, I was offered a chance at redemption. Steve Mincin, a colleague at the school where I teach, invited me to join one of his Latin classes. I agreed and, at age 49, squeezed into a chair in Steve’s class of 8th graders.
“What are you doing here?” my students asked, with puzzled looks. Soon, however, the questions stopped, and I was transformed from Mr. Oechslin, music teacher, into Paulus...Latin student. I attended class, struggled with homework, and memorized vocabulary lists. I sweated over every test. During pre- dawn jogs, when I passed by a seminary near my home, I must have sounded like a novice priest as I worked on my noun declensions: pater, patris, patri, patrem, patre, pater.
By becoming a student with my students, I worked outside the traditional school hierarchy, and my relationships with the kids changed. Thoreau wrote, “We should learn of our students as well as with them.” Each day, I saw my music students in a setting different from the music room, and they saw me in a different way, too. According to Steve, class work occasionally bounced unabsorbed off my forehead— something the kids surely noticed.
Still, my students helped me. Each was supportive: “Do you want to review second declension noun cases, Paulus?” Helpful: “Remember, we have a Chapter 9 quiz today.” Even competitive: “You only got an 86 percent? Ha! I got 100.”
The year in Steve’s class helped me in many ways, some expected, others not. I experienced the satisfaction of learning something completely different. I broadened my horizon and dusted off 50-year-old neurons. I learned some new teaching techniques. And I got to watch a master teacher bring a so-called “dead language” back to life. But most important, when I became a student with my students, I became a better teacher, as well.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Training Tales: Carpe Diem