Why I Teach

Alice H. Reich

Chronicle of Higher Education, October 19, 1983

I recently had the opportunity to think about why I teach, and I took the time to articulate the good things about teaching, to sharpen a vision toward which I can move.  I am aware of the aspects of the profession that threaten to shrink the soul, such as the insufficient resources of every kind going all too frequently to the wrong places.  And I do upon occasion despair about the meaning of what I do.  But I keep teaching, because it is, for me, the practice of what it means to be human, to have a voice that names the world in relation to one's own experiences.

When I began teaching, I knew what some of my goals were, but I had very few ideas about how to achieve them.  I wanted to make students active rather than passive members of their culture.  I wanted them to see that to be human is to be a creator as well as a creature of the world.  I wanted them to understand that the conditions of our own humanity are the conditions of humanity as a whole, that we are essentially no freer than the least free among us, that our well-being is dependent upon the well-being of others.  I wanted them to believe that if they accepted those premises, they could and must work to make a better world.  

But how does one teach that?  You cannot give people power; you cannot make people responsible.  The grammar of such constructions reveals the politics behind them.  "I will teach students" is a statement of my power over them, of my being the active subject and their being the passive objects.  In that situation, the main things they can learn are irresponsibility and powerlessness.

So I have tried to learn how to teach by asking myself who were my best teachers.  My parents were better teachers than many I encountered in most of my years of school because they taught me to learn everywhere.  There were a few fine teachers, good in different ways:  one was patient, another full of enthusiasm, another brilliant, and another whose ideas came at the right time for me and my ideas.  But I learned the most from friends, because in friendship one finds genuine reciprocity, and no compulsion other than the force of discourse; no oppression, no violence of any kind.

And that is my model of the ideal teaching situation.  The ideal of reciprocity and freedom is not fully attainable in a classroom, of course, but it provides a useful measure.  And insofar as I have attained that ideal in teaching, it has been due to students, students who have taken responsibility when I have relinquished control, who have reciprocated speech and thought.

Love of my material and the support of my friends and colleagues are vital, but without hearing the voices of students, I could not continue to teach.  What keeps me at it is not the exceptional student -- one who, in my limited definition, shares and is able to articulate and act upon my vision of the world -- but the possibility that every student will find a voice, a way of being in the world that changes it.

I have learned the most about teaching from  my students.  I heave learned that the sound of my voice in the classroom is not necessarily an indication that more learning is taking place than when there is silence.  I have learned that allowing them to see my mind working on confusing issues is more instructive for them, and less exhausting for me, than presenting myself as one who knows all, and mystifying the processes through which I became so knowledgeable.

I have learned that I don't have to be all things to all people.  Students who do not learn with me may well find other teachers with whom they will learn.  And I have learned that the silent preposition in the sentence "I teach students" is not to or for; it is with.  I teach with students.

That is not to deny the difference in our status, I am the teacher and they are the students; we do not gain much, and we may create considerable confusion, by denying that ours is an unequal relationship.  But in humane unequal relationships, such as those between parent and child, and, one would hope, teacher and student, the goal is to work toward eliminating the inequality.

I have learned to live with contradictions and to embrace them as sources of new understanding.

For some time I thought there was a conflict between caring for the methods of teaching and attending to content.  it seemed to me that people who were concerned with how to reach students necessarily worked on that at the expense of what was supposed to reach them.  I felt that one could not get through a semester's worth of material if one paid too much attention to whether or not the students understood it.

Now, although I am very concerned with content, I also see that if students don't understand it, I am getting through the material only for my benefit.  I have come to see the relationship between teaching methods and course content as one of creative tension.  In working through that tension, teaching is an art, sharing with other arts the equal emphasis on message and medium, subordinating neither to the other.  It is not a question of finding a way to package the material any more than we would think of Bach's B-minor Mass as a package of religious ritual.  What I know about anthropology is worthless in teaching unless students make some of it their own.  And that doesn't happen by their "buying" a package of anything.

As a teacher I hope to convey to students the joys of critical thinking, a way of being in the world that may not give much comfort but one that makes life interesting.  I hope to show them that caring passionately for ideas has to make room for the possibility of being wrong.  I want them to know that I am critical not because I think life is not worth living but because I think it is worth living better than most of us are now doing.

I want to change the world.  I may not be able to do that by teaching, but it is my chance to become part of a process in which people learn that they do not have to accept the world as it is, that their futures are not given, and that there are things we can all do to make the world better.  I have always wanted to change the way my students see the world.  I also want them to change their world, and mine, by finding their own voices, by articulating in an active way their experience with the experience of others.

The most exciting place in teaching is the gap between what the teacher teaches and what the student learns.  That is where the unpredictable transformation takes place, the transformation that means we are human beings, creating and defining our world, and not objects, passive and defined.

I teach because it is my job, and I feel privileged to have a job that is very nearly synonymous with my work.  I teach because it puts me in a place in society where competing ideas are encouraged, not feared, where we cherish the contest between ideas more than the victory of our own.  I teach because it is one of the quickest ways of finding out what I don't know; it makes me alert to possibilities.  And I teach to create new possibilities.

This article is taken from a lecture; the entire lecture is available in the volume Adducere edited by Margaret McDonald, and published by Regis College Press, Denver, Colorado, 1987.


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