Friday, January 18, 2008

Feeling a teacher's love

In high school, we had a teacher, Mr. T, who taught computer science and some of the advanced math courses. And he was wonderful. Everybody loved him. I've never encountered so much infectious enthusiasm, even at the ungodly hour of 8am on a Monday morning. He could light us on fire by drawing box-and-pointer diagrams. We had a party the day we learned the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. Mr. T was a mentor, a friend, a father, a rock; his room was a haven for geeklings. Everybody loved him, and he loved us too.

I understood his love in a rather abstract sense back then, and up until this morning. But this afternoon, I understood it from the inside.

The research I'm doing at the moment involves teaching pairs of people a constructed language by immersion, and then having them take a test. (More details on this (very interesting) paradigm in an upcoming post!) Today was only the second time this experiment has ever been run, so I'm also happy just because it worked. We ran two pairs of people.

I had an awfully hard time teaching the first pair. They just seemed to fundamentally not get a lot of the grammar. It was very difficult to keep myself from grabbing one guy and telling him, loudly and in English, that "the way to turn a sentence into a question is NOT just to say the sentence with a rising intonation at the end!!!". And so on, and so on. Teaching them was frustrating, occasionally painful.

And then the second pair came in, a pair of undergrads, and they more than made up for the first pair. It only took them twenty minutes to get to more than adequate proficiency, where it had taken the first pair almost an hour to get to less than adequate proficiency. They seemed to pick everything up right away. It was like watching a rose bloom in time-lapse. My favorite moment was when I taught the question form, using only one verb in my examples. When I prompted one of the participants, she immediately came up with several correct question-form sentences, and she generalized to all the verbs we'd learned, not just the one I demonstrated with. If we hadn't been in an experiment, I might have proposed to her on the spot.

I graded the four tests just now. The first pair had decidedly mediocre scores, no surprise there. But the second pair did extremely well, and they both did just about perfectly on the part we're most interested in. I was overjoyed to see them using linguistic terminology correctly to explain their answers (even though their knowledge of terms had nothing to do with how well they acquired the language). When I was done grading, I spontaneously picked up the last test and kissed it.

Tonight, I think I experienced a little of what made Mr. T such a good teacher, what made him love his students and his work. It's not an easy feeling to articulate. Pride and joy in students, enthusiasm for the subject, and a little bit of self-satisfaction that, yeah, I taught them that. The feeling was very powerful, even though the teaching I did today wasn't very real. What if I were teaching material that was beautiful and meaningful, instead of an arbitrary constructed language? What if I could teach for an entire semester and witness long-term progress and synthesis, instead of bidding goodbye after an hour? What if I were teaching students who learned for love of the material, not because they were paid to be subjects in a study?

For the record, this is not the first time I've taught, nor the first time I've found it satisfying. For a couple of years I tutored 6th graders in math and Japanese, and it was always great when they'd get a flash of insight after a long hard slog. (They were remedial students, so it wasn't often.) And in the Karate club, it's traditional that you help teach the people who rank below you. I was co- leading brown belt my senior year, so that meant I taught just about everybody. I always enjoyed seeing some yellow-belts perform a technique really well, and thinking "Yay, they remembered X subtle point I taught them about!". But I've never felt a teacher's love as strongly as I did today; certainly not strongly enough to merit using the word `love'.

If I follow the track I'm planning to follow, I'll end up a professor. I understand that teaching is mostly tedious, frustrating, and difficult, not full of brilliant-student-love. But it's the possibility, the hope that springs eternal, and when it's fulfilled it makes up for everything else.

No comments:

Post a Comment