Philosophy Of Teaching

Like most history teachers I very rarely have students who come to class with any real knowledge of my subject. They may remember pieces of some lessons they had connected with in previous years, but this information is shallow and lacks specificity. One of the reasons for that is that they have very little connection to the material. They often see these concepts as simple dates and facts on a paper instead of a guide for decision-making in their lives. This version of history was imparted to me as a student from an unlikely source. One of the security guards at my high school was a woman who showed her feelings for students so clearly that the entire school simply called her “Mom.” Her list of accomplishments as a school employee would make any teacher jealous, however, it was a first hand account she gave to a class I was in that changed the way I thought of history. After years of attempts she finally agreed to come to my class and give her first hand accounts of the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama as a child. My normal tendency to be a bit of a clown vanished when she spoke, and I hung on her every word for the entire hour she spoke to us. The raw emotion coming from a person I loved was nearly as impactful as the lesson she tried to convey to us in how to view people in the future. While it took years for me to be able to put into words the impact this made on me, I knew at the time it had changed me.

Over the years of my career I have developed a method of teaching that most closely resembles the impact that “Mom” made on me while attempting to get through the material at hand in the courses I teach.

I may not be close to as special to my students as I saw her, but I do try to make the same connections that she made in showing why the material may be impactful in their lives. This process is started from the first day when I unveil the process by which I start class. Students eventually analyze current events daily, but are first walked through the process of recognizing bias, logical fallacies and other related topics. These lessons are interwoven into the curriculum through the use of historical figures, since many of the most intelligent men and women in history have said, or been motivated by, philosophies like the following:

“To study and not think is a waste. To think and not study is dangerous.”

– Confucius

“If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between ‘for’ and ‘against’ is the mind’s worst disease.”

– Jianzhi Sengcan

“To teach how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralyzed by hesitation, is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.”

– Bertrand Russell

Interlaced within this early curriculum is an overarching question of “what history really is.” Students eventually come to the realization that the type of arguments and polarization that can be found currently in the media are the same type of arguments that can be found at any time period of history. When this realization is coupled with selected primary sources from history, students are then confronted with a truth that far too few students are aware of; that these issues are largely universal and the job of the historian is to find the truth from these contentious and conflicting narratives. Once the students have met me at that point, I spend the rest of the year trying to point out the lessons they can learn from history that may help them in their 21st century lives.

Due to the fact that the circumstances of their lives continue to change, my curriculum is an ever evolving set of connections and sources used to illicit the type of analytical thinking that all teachers strive for. I always know exactly when I have achieved my difficult goal based on how often students take it upon themselves to make these connections in class. My favorite of these moments was while teaching an African-American history course the day after I finished the Civil Rights Movement. This is an era that continues to fascinate me based on my experience with “Mom” so I have a tendency to do a deep dive into the tactics and strategies of both the traditionally covered non-violent side of the movement as well as the impact of leaders such as Malcolm X who advocated other options. The next day we had a bell-ringer on setbacks in our war in Afghanistan which was cleverly hijacked by my students. That day a student brought up the idea of using non-violent tactics to win the war, to which his peer, who was set to join the U.S. Marine Corps, openly disagreed with. This argument exploded in my class with students using the specific tactics that I taught to solve their current issue and others in full disagreement. Since this is the type of analysis I strive for, I scrapped my lesson and allowed this conversation to run the entire length of the class due to the near one hundred percent involvement and the use of historical strategies. While it may be unlikely to get that type of conversation to start in most classes, that is the goal that I shoot for in all classes and it allows for more fruitful discussions in other aspects of class once students are thinking that way.

“I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think”

– Socrates

In the end I am aware that there is only so much of an impact I can make on students through one course, but I strive everyday to make my students see things from multiple perspectives that allows them to evaluate any situation in life in the right mind set. If they forget every piece of historical information we cover during the year, but they have some increase in the ability to do that I will be happy. I hope that I can make the type of impact on them that some of my teachers made on me in increasing their intellectual curiosity. It is my firm opinion that this type of thinking is the most important thing to instill in students for their future, whether that includes college or not. If I fall short of this lofty goal for whatever reason, I hope that the example I provide to them of high standards and diversity of thought helps them in some small way.