As a high school principal it was my responsibility to evaluate the teaching and learning taking place on the campus. I was disappointed one day while visiting the classroom of a history teacher when he simply told the students to open their textbooks, read a designated chapter and to answer the questions at the end.
The chapter happened to deal with the westward expansion of the United States in the mid-1800s. As the students went about their task with total disinterest, I became increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, I stood up, took chalk in hand and began to teach.
I told the students that I was privileged to have in my possession diaries and journals of several of my ancestors who experienced the westward expansion first-hand. I told them about religious persecution, burned-out homes and farms, covered wagons crossing the frozen Mississippi in mid-winter, of mothers giving birth on the plains during snow storms.
I told them of fathers and husbands leaving their families to fend for themselves on the frontier while they marched off to fight a war with Mexico in order to obtain the means to purchase wagons, oxen and supplies necessary to continue the trek. I told them of “Johnston’s Army” that was sent west by the President to put down a non-existent “rebellion” and how the settlers were willing to defy the military power of the United States rather than be driven, again, from their homes in the Rocky Mountains.
I recounted the story of the hoards of crickets that were bent on devouring the crops of the first pioneer settlers. They were saved when flocks of seagulls appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, almost miraculously, to devour the insects and save the scarce food supply.
When the bell rang, I was surprised and pleased when the students didn’t want to leave. They had gotten caught up in the excitement of history from the perspective of those who actually experienced it. It became real, having happened to flesh and blood people, and not just something they had to read in a textbook and regurgitate for a test.
At the beginning of the United States’ space shuttle program, White Sands, New Mexico, was designated as an alternate landing site in the event that bad weather conditions on either coast made it too dangerous to set a shuttle down in those places. On one of those occasions NASA announced that a shuttle would be landing at White Sands. My school was located just a couple of hours away. Several parents of students requested that their children be excused from school so they could witness the landing. I gave my whole-hearted consent, wishing that I could go myself.
One teacher vehemently objected to what I had done. “How can you authorize students to miss my class!” he demanded. I was shocked. He was the science teacher! I asked him what the students would remember throughout their lives—reading about the space program from his textbook or experiencing it first-hand. I told him that we just couldn’t allow the business of conducting school to get in the way of learning.
Many of the lessons and principles learned during my long career in education have found application outside the walls of the school. Matthew O. Richardson said, “I have learned that a key to becoming real in every aspect of our lives is our ability to teach in a way that does not restrict learning. You see,” he said, “a real life requires real learning, which depends on real teaching. The responsibility to teach effectively is not limited to those who have formal callings as teachers.”
He went on to say that all of us, including the youth and children, have a responsibility to teach. We must understand that we teach people, not lessons. We must overcome the urge to cover everything in a manual or textbook and focus instead on those things that people really need to know and do. Real teaching involves much more than just talking and telling. Instead of asking, “What can I do for my children, class members, or others?’ we should ask, “How do I invite and help those around me to learn for themselves?” (Ensign Magazine, Nov. 2011, p.94)
Teaching is truly a noble calling and each of us has been called. I think we teach as much by example as any other way. Let’s hope that our examples are worthy of the call.