Breaking Away

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I modeled myself after Dr. Frank. As a new teacher I even imitated his growl to hush students who talked in class.

When I was in college preparing to be a teacher, I had a professor—I'll call him Dr. Frank—who was a marvelous teacher. His lectures on English literature were some of my most exciting times in a classroom. Though at the time the lectures seemed linear to me, I now realize that Dr. Frank's knowledge about literature and Western culture was so broad and deep that he could begin with one topic and make connections to an astonishing variety of subjects. His lectures were a smorgasbord of literary ideas. It would not be unusual for him to begin a class discussing, say, Edna St. Vincent Millay's modern poem "Euclid Alone Has Looked on Beauty," only to leap back 24 centuries to connect Millay's poem to Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" and then end the class period with some choice words about Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations on Immortality." His mind was an organic hypertext on literature and philosophy, and we listened with rapt attention.

Most of us prepared for Dr. Frank's class out of terror that he might call on us spontaneously, as he often did, and ask for an opinion. He challenged us, and each student was expected to be equipped with ideas with which to compete against our peers. In his class, we quickly learned to ask thoughtful questions because Dr. Frank—great teacher that he was—couldn't resist disparaging a student who asked a stupid question, especially when the question betrayed a lack of preparation. Naturally, many students stopped asking questions, though a few continued to risk interrupting lectures. Once, when two students were quietly talking in the back row, Dr. Frank growled, "Hey, you in the back, there will be no private discussion in this class unless it includes me!" Though most students feared this man, they respected the authority of his knowledge and praised him.

A few years later, I was an aspiring English teacher, and I modeled myself after Dr. Frank. I wished to be the kind of teacher that he was, to command the same authority. As a new teacher, I even imitated his growl to hush students who talked in class. But something was wrong. My students didn't respond to me with the awe that we had shown Dr. Frank. They instead were hostile, and I wondered why. Around this time, I began collaborating with colleagues in writing workshops about teaching and learning. Through this work, I learned that while most of my colleagues had, like me, admired great classroom lecturers, very few of us had the knowledge and charisma to be great lecturers ourselves. Yet through working together as "team teachers" on collaborative curriculum and by engaging in common professional pursuits, we learned to be successful teachers.

My work with other teachers introduced me to new disciplines and new ways of thinking about knowledge. With help from a biology teacher, I developed a series of writing assignments called "A Sense of Place" and incorporated close observation of nature in my teaching of writing. In discussions with a math teacher, I discovered the "invisible geometry" embedded in sculpture and painting. And from an engineering teacher, I learned how to structure teams of students so that they could achieve goals that were beyond the reach of any one student. In turn, I helped my colleagues find ways to include writing in everything from art to accounting.

Very few of us became great lecturers through these collaborations, but some became gifted teachers, experimenting and crossing curricular boundaries. After two years of unsuccessfully trying to be Dr. Frank, I found my stride and discovered that I did my best teaching when I encouraged students to cooperate with each other, to inspire one another, and to help each other achieve collaborative success, something even Dr. Frank couldn't do.

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