Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Student Becomes the Teacher

Looking back over my long (and arduous) life I cannot think of any one second in which I haven’t been a student in some capacity or other. And boy was I some student – cheeky in class, disruptive in discussions, but oh-so engaged. Because I love teachers – they blow my mind and challenge me and make me want to become more than I am.

While in primary school I had a teacher who ran us around the playground, weaving stories that somehow tied in with tree-houses, swing sets and monkey bars. In high school I learned to calculate distance using the speed of light, to imagine imaginary numbers, and think critically about Dorian Gray (which was not too hard to do, let’s face it). On to my year as an exchange student in America, and I met a tiny gnome of a teacher called Mr. Ribbich – he and I argued gun laws and beat poetry and the political landscape that makes up America. Finally in psychology I found a department of mentors. In particular, throughout my PhD and now my post-doc I am (still) learning to think about understanding human behavior and thought empirically in a way that I never knew was possible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. While I have been tutoring and lecturing for a long while now, and am very comfortable with soap-box ranting about statistics and social psychology, this year has brought me my very first honours students. Having honours students (and masters and PhD students) provides a unique opportunity to teach and mentor. In large university classes you have very limited one-on-one contact with students, but as a supervisor you become an integral part of your student’s life and learning experience. All of which has led me to think about the sort of mentor and teacher I want to be to my honours students (and eventually PhD students). Below I review some famous examples of teachers – one that I refuse to be, one that I would like to be (but probably couldn’t pull it off), and finally one that I want to be.

The teacher I refuse to be:

American Mary-Kay Letourneau, at the age of 35, became pregnant to her 13 year old student. She eventually served seven years in prison, and upon release married the student. She now frequently hosts ‘Hot For Teacher’ events in Seattle. Do I even need to comment on why I refuse to be the Mary-Kay Letourneau of the psych department?

The teacher I could try and fail to be:

In ‘Dead Poet’s Society’ Robin Williams plays an inspirational teacher at a conservative boys’ school. He teaches the boys to appreciate poetry, stands on tables whilst doing so, and instructs them (a la Walt Whitman) to call him ‘O Captain, my Captain’. I want to be this teacher, and I want it bad – stirring students into a frenzied revolution of learning sounds like fun. Teachers who aim to emulate Robin Williams’ example, however, typically tend to fail spectacularly. They are met with rolling eyes, heaving sighs and general mockery. I do not necessarily abandon my hopes of being referred to as ‘Captain, my Captain’ someday, but will perhaps try for it when I become a little more eccentric in later life.

The teacher I want to be:

Finally, an example of the sort of mentor that I would like to be – that definitive teacher, Albus Dumbledore. Dumbledore (like all people) is flawed, but his influence on Harry is ultimately extremely positive. When Harry worries that his nature is inherently bad, Dumbledore says to him “It is choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.” This quote has struck with me, perhaps more than any other uttered by Dumbledore (yes, I know he is imaginary). Dumbledore is profound, kind, and teaches Harry while allowing him to also grow and learn on his own. Yes, in conclusion I think that I am going to model my honours supervisory style on Dumbledore.

So… what sort of mentor are you going to be?

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