'Letter to a Young Teacher'

BY Danton Remoto | Remote Control
Posted at 06/25/2010 10:50 PM | Updated as of 06/25/2010 10:50 PM

This is the title of Fr. Joseph V. Landy’s small and sensible book for those who want to teach. The Jesuit teacher lives up to the subtitle of this book — The Art of Being Interesting — by giving us a book filled with pearls to be cast in the classroom.

The nine chapters are concise and written in a tone almost conversational, as if a wise, old man is giving a pep talk to a young person during College Placement Day. It is also freighted with honesty.

“Why teach? Many answers are possible, but one spells death to a career in the classroom. If your overriding motive is money, go elsewhere.” How true, how true. When we hold our college reunions, my college classmates at Ateneo would tell me how youthful I still looked, with a full head of black hair and hardly discernible lines on my face. I would cackle with laughter and tell them that, indeed, God is fair. “I may look young, but I hitched a ride coming here. But you? You came here in your Benzes or SUVs!”

So why should one live a life of genteel poverty and teach? Fr. Landy says a good teacher has a “touch of the actor, perhaps even the ham actor,” in them. They like to perform. Or they have the sense of mission similar to that found in doctors and nurses. Or you remember your confused days as a young person, and want to help those navigating the maze themselves. Or you just loved school when you were a student, and found this world can be for you, even after college.

Be that as it may, it is not a profession free from boredom. You and I and our friends who taught know that you have to prepare for a class. That is not so bad, because that is necessary. But the endless checking of papers! No sooner had you checked the quizzes than the group reports come in; and your green or red ink has just dried on them when you have to check the midterm exams, or the book review! And sometimes, as the good Jesuit Father intuits, you also have to arm yourself with the “inevitable misunderstanding with students and clashes with school authorities. Weathering such storms is part of the teaching profession.”
How, then, to stay alive in the classroom and not be like a parrot reading notes from the yellowed papers you have kept with you in the last 1,000 years?

Fr. Landy, who like all Jesuits have a solid training in Greek and Latin, quotes a line from old Latin: “Nemo dat quod non habet, meaning you can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself. Interest passes from person to person the way electricity passes through a wire.”

This means you should constantly update yourself on the subject you teach. Just because you have a college degree, or a master’s degree or a PhD, you should not just shut the door and consider yourself the fountain of wisdom on your subject. No, Sir, you just can’t wing it. Having a syllabus is fine, but you have to enrich it with contexts, subtexts, stories, why, even jokes and humorous tales about the subject you teach.

Some teachers could be like the magical bird of the forest in Ibong Adarna. You attend their classes and you fall asleep with the droppings from their dead tree of knowledge. “Because their own interest in their subject has expired. They have lost their appetite for it and no longer believe in its value. They have stopped reading about it, talking about it, caring about it. Once their students sense that a teacher is scraping bottom, is no longer growing in curiosity and knowledge about the subject of instruction, their attention level sinks too. Stale bread is uninteresting bread.”

If memory is the mother of all writing, then preparation is at the heart of all teaching. Fr. Landy says a teacher should re-read the text a day before. One should never come to the classroom cold. But preparation is not just an intellectual enterprise. Sure, Aristotle defined a person as a “rational animal,” since our reasoning ability separates us from the buffalo and the bee. But the major challenge one faces in the classroom is not intellectual but psychological.

You have to catch the attention of the students — especially in this Age of Farmville. Luckily, there is a whole archive of materials on pedagogy, and Fr. Landy gives us the gist.
One, it is not what one is teaching that captures the attention of the students, it is the way it is taught. The five psychological factors of attention-getting include activity, reality, the vital, humor and novelty.

Activity means the teacher should not be like the Sphinx solid before the desk. The teacher should move. What I do the moment I walk in is to make sure the classroom is comfortable. I turn on all electric fans, open all windows, and make sure the lights are on. These are part of what my venerable teacher, Fr. Joseph A. Galdon, SJ, called classroom management. Then I call the students by their first names for attendance, and later sit on the desk, a gesture that, I am happy to note, Fr. Landy also likes to do.

Write on the blackboard, point to what you’ve written, walk around the classroom. Activity also hums in the classroom when the students are involved in the learning process, in what we now call student-centered learning. Lectures are still good, but not all the time. Ask questions from the students, in true Socratic fashion. Call the students who nod from time to time. Or better yet, teach the students to ask questions from their classmates, with you acting as a moderator, like in a talk show.

But ever the priest, Fr. Landy adds: “Your method of questioning should always be Platonic in the sense that like him, your manner should be gentle, never sharp and imperious. Martinets may make good marine instructors but not good teachers of the young. In my experience, the most successful teachers had a classroom manner that was relaxed and conversational.”

Reality means bringing the colorful world outside school right into the classroom. Bring a map, a globe, a stack of postcards or photographs. Lug along a chart, a slide show, a Power Point Presentation. Imitate the characters in the fiction you teach — their voices, their facial expressions, and why not, even their very clothes if you have them at home. In my Poetry classes, I ask the students to go to the Ateneo Art Gallery — which has an excellent collection of Modern Philippine Art — and ask the students to describe the images in a painting. And in my Fiction classes, I ask them to go to the same gallery and retell the story found in a painting.

The Vital means emphasizing the importance of the course. In my History class, my late teacher Fr. Leonard stressed the strategic value of the blitzkrieg during World War II, a quality which one can use in life after college. Or the ability to ask difficult questions — to others and more importantly, to one’s self.

Humor, of course, is the tonic that makes a teacher sparkle. The great teacher Gilbert Highet said that “I consider a day’s teaching wasted if we do not all have one hearty laugh.” The atmosphere in the classroom should be friendly, not threatening, and easygoing. If your teachers are Nazis, you fear them, but did you ever learn anything at all, except to make fun of them behind their backs?

Novelty means varying your teaching strategies, bringing or doing something new each time. And voice — ahh, that is the prime apparatus of an excellent teacher. “Living voices, not libraries, are the most indispensable transmitters of learning.. I have always described the ways in which a public speaker should avoid monotone as the three P’s — Pace, Power and Pitch.”

Short pauses are like silences in a conversation — just enough time to let an important idea sink in. The power of one’s voice should reach the person in the last row. Vary also the loudness of your voice, like a theater actor using his voice like an accordion of ideas.
In his Postscript, Fr. Landy said that “those who taught us in college we remember mostly for what they did for our minds. But those who taught us in primary and secondary schools made their mark on our characters, our ways of thinking about life, our ambitions, our immortal souls.”

That is why I teach part-time even now that I am between 40 and death. I am writing books and preparing for a career in the public realm, but still I find time to teach. There is nothing like that eureka moment when the students’ eyes widen because of the arrival of an insight, blooming like light in their minds

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