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A passion for learning

05 Oct

The fourth principle Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game derive from their corpus of interviews is:

Although students remember the passion of their teachers, the vitality of the classroom is an energy that teachers and students produce together. The successful teacher must be able to receive, if they are to be able to give. Because this energy isn’t flowing in one direction, passion has the undistracted stillness that learning requires.

That one is a touch more gnomic than the others so far, but I have to agree that my best teaching, and sometimes it happened and sometimes it didn’t, was characterised by such receiving as well as giving. Julie McCrossin, well-known here in Sydney to ABC listeners, is quoted in the relevant chapter:

Julie drew attention to this question of teachers’ needs. Following her account of the three qualities that made Mrs Miller a great teacher,  Julie added a description of Mrs Miller’s idiosyncrasies:

And the final thing I will say is that she was just hilariously idiosyncratic. She was clearly a smoker, desperately thin. Looking back, her agitation must have been a desire to smoke. And she had very overt phobias. She was terrified of birds and if a bird ever flew past a classroom, Mrs Miller almost had a nervous breakdown. That only endeared her to us more. She was a very quirky individual, Mrs Miller.

It’s a miracle in a way, her personal passion, her knowledge of her material, her love of learning and teaching were all so strong that even though she was very old and lined, battered by life, she could reach across this extraordinary gap to these teenagers.

The discrepancy between the agitated and quirky individual and the passionate and patient teacher tells us about the transformative power of classroom relations. Through their relation, the students gave Mrs Miller qualities that were not available to her on her own. When the students experienced Mrs Miller in full flight, discussing Donne or Shakespeare, they didn’t look at her age or lined face: she met them across the extraordinary age gap because she wasn’t limited by such definitions.

That business of being given qualities that are not available to one on one’s own sounds quite mystical, doesn’t it? But it is true. I have come out of lessons at times quite charged by something that has happened that has elicited from me insights I didn’t even know I had… And perhaps more often I have come out of lessons feeling as drained as can be and as flat as a tack…

What is being talked of here does not only apply to the more charismatic and outgoing among us either. Edgar Bembrick, my Latin teacher in my last year in high school — his last year too as he died before that year was over — was in some ways as boring a person as you could hope to meet, and with a face remarkably like a prune. However, there was a twinkle in the eye and an awesome reputation in his subject area: “Don’t use that crib, son; I wrote it.” He would also come into the lesson without a text book and tell us what page to turn to and would then proceed to his exposition without recourse to anything other than his memory. He once claimed to be able to complete any line of Latin or Greek verse we could throw at him. We never caught him out.  

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