On Teaching, essay, 2007

This essay is dedicated to:
Professor J. Skillings
Dean College in Franklin, MA.
Thank you for being that kind of teacher.

There are some who know what they will do with their lives from the cradle; a guiding force drives these people to follow their destinies, few will land within the extensive pages of contemporary history books, leaving their wisdoms behind for those that follow, nor do many make it beyond living memory. Yet there are those small handfuls that make it their lives work to teach; to instill a thirst for learning, a desire to achieve, a need to contribute. A teacher embodies honor, integrity, and passion, and he passes these precious gifts to his students through his work.

Examples of the teacher-student relationship are universal, found throughout all of time, and in all cultures. Every life has been touched in some way by a teacher, whether directly or indirectly. Even those without any formal education are affected by teachers. People who spend their entire lives laboring in the fields, or factories having never stepped foot in the schoolroom are impacted by teachers, because the people they work for, or the social environments they work in, have been created by the educated. Like water, knowledge has a way of finding its path through the smallest fissure. Henry Brooks Adams says “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.” It is a teacher’s job to explain the definitions of things, it is a teacher’s job to explain the history of things, and it is a teacher’s job to explain the meaning of things; however it is their work to instill a thirst for knowledge, to inspire a student’s curiosity, to engage their minds in the quest to learn. A passionate teacher can evoke the desire to learn in even the most reluctant student. It is this dynamic relationship between the scholarly mentor and the untutored apprentice that has become the foundation of modern human. A teacher unlocks the hidden potential within the student, essentially creating one whose thoughts can expand beyond the immediate, the tangible, and forage into the realm of theory, and philosophy. A teacher inspires students to learn, to explore, to discover, to reshape the world as each sees it, to push the boundaries past their limits just to see what is beyond. A teacher gifts them with knowledge, and propels them into the world to find their purpose, their dreams, and their destinies.

A teacher’s work does not end with simple instruction, they impress into each student a sense of honor, they mold a foundation of character, and they nourish a predilection to achieve. In the film The Emperor’s Club, Kevin Klein plays a revered classics professor, Mr. Hundert, who lives by exceedingly high moral values, and expects his students to behave likewise. However Sedgewick Bell, a troubled student threatens the sanctity of his classroom, morals, and life. In a risky move to save the boys character, Mr. Hundert changes Sedgewick’s grade so that he may compete in the schools annual tournament, Mr. Julius Caesar. A contest that takes the three brightest boys each year, and poses to them questions of Roman history in increasing degrees of difficulty until the last boy standing is crowned Mr. Julius Caesar. When Mr. Hundert realizes that Sedgewick has cheated, his world begins to crumble, he looses sight of his path; he is disillusioned with himself and the world he is in. He lives this way, a shell of himself, for more than twenty years until another pivotal moment changes everything. Sedgewick Bell, now a powerful man, calls together all the original players from that long ago drama, he wishes to hold another Mr. Julius Caesar contest in order to reclaim his intellectual integrity. Mr. Hundert again places faith in Mr. Bell, only to learn that Sedgewick has again cheated. This time however Mr. Hundert realizes that although he has failed this one student, one failure does not outweigh a lifetime of achievement. Where he was ineffective with one, he was successful with hundreds of others, Deepak Mehta, champion of both of Sedgewick’s tournaments, reads a plaque to Mr. Hundert, “A great teacher has little external history to record. His life goes over into other lives. These men are pillars in the intimate structures of our schools. They are more essential than its stones or beams, and they will continue to be a kindling force and a revealing power in our lives”. This plaque is gifted to Mr. Hundert in recognition of a lifetime’s achievement, and it is here that Mr. Hundert comprehends that his achievement cannot be measured through his failure of Sedgewick Bell; however it can be measured through the lives and successes of the students he inspired to achieve their own dreams.

“Great ambition, and conquest, without contribution, is insignificant” (Mr.Hundert, The Emperor’s Club), this statement echoes throughout mankind. Through the work of teaching, through the work learning, through the work of living we discover the purpose of our life. Humankind’s greatest achievements are not self-serving, they are in fact serving others. John F. Kennedy in his inaugural speech beseeches, ask not what your country can do for you – but what you can do for your country”. These words have had a resounding impact. In his own way Kennedy taught America that it was time to contribute, in order to make the world a better place for all mankind. It is through our contribution to society that we separate ourselves as a divine specie. Great teachers make lasting impressions on their students, and these students go off into the world to become people of power, people who create the businesses that other’s depend upon, people who create the policies that society is governed by, people who teach the world’s children so that the cycle may begin anew. There are also those who are teachers without knowing it, John D. Rockefeller was a tyrant who ruined anyone or anything who dared cross the path of his ambitions, yet it is through his lack of mercy that his son learned lessons of inestimable value. John Jr. made it his mission in life to contribute to society from the beginning and it is said, wishing to undue the damage done by his father. It does not take wealth to contribute to society; it only takes the knowledge to know it can be done, the desire to do it, and the ability to follow that desire to fruition. Teachers instill their students with the knowledge they need to start the process, the inspiration to desire their own contribution, and the moral integrity to follow it through.

In essence to teach is to tread a path few have the courage to face. It is work that extends far from the pages of books, to mold the minds of the young, and develop them into strong moral characters. The work of the teacher does not end when the bell rings at the end of the school day, because the teacher imparts a piece of himself to each child he reaches, and that child carries that piece with him as he grows. Like a stone thrown into the mirrored surface of a pond, the ripples extend ever outward, ever expanding into larger and larger circles. It is the job of a teacher to bestow the student with proficiency in mathematics, languages, history, and sciences. Yet it is the nature of the work to ingrain the student with honor, integrity, and passion.

References:

Henry Brooks Adams, www.worldofquotes.com, topic: teachers

The Emperor’s Club. Dir. Michael Hoffman. Based on the short story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin. Perf. Rahul Khanna. Universal 2002

The Emperor’s Club. Dir. Michael Hoffman. Based on the short story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin. Perf. Kevin Klein. Universal 2002

John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address, January 20,1961, www.bartleby.com/124/pres56.html

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