182. The Accidental Teacher

The title of this article (“The Accidental Teacher,” for those of you who are reading my column in the newspaper, and so may not get to see the titles) came to me before I had any idea what I was going to write about. Sometimes that happens, and I have to let it happen. I must have known it was going to lead to an article; I didn’t start writing “Teacher in the Rye,” or “A Teacher Grows in Brooklyn.” I guess I’ll be an accidental writer for a while. It’s not a great risk; if the article doesn’t work, I’ll erase it.
In my last article, I wrote that everyone’s a teacher, to some degree. I realize that such a statement can sound quite presumptuous to someone who does not agree. Sorry about that. But not sorry enough to take it back. I’ll stand by the statement. I don’t mean you should work in a school, or work with young children. I know adults who don’t want anything to do with either, and I think they ought to follow their bliss, and not do what they don’t want to do.
If an opthalmologist told me that everyone’s an opthalmologist, to some degree, I wouldn’t immediately connect with the statement, although I’ll bet a case could be made for it. Let’s see. We all have eyes, and we’re all interested in whether our eyes work as well as we want them to… Oh, never mind.
But really, everyone’s a teacher, to some degree. It may be fun, occasionally, to know things other people don’t know. For a while, you can smile knowingly. You can even smirk smugly. But sooner or later, you probably want to be recognized, in some way, for having that knowledge, and in order to get the credit you deserve, you have to let other people in on the knowledge. And more to the point, what you know can do more, and grow, if you spread it around. To do that, whether you mean to or not, you end up teaching. And so you’re a teacher.
As you teach, you sometimes discover that your pupil or pupils don’t seem to be learning what you’re trying to teach. Some education professor told me, years ago, that if I’m not getting people to learn, I’m not teaching. In a way, that’s mean. If I plan my lessons carefully, deliver them thoughtfully, and have a system for evaluating the success of my lessons, I should be allowed to call that teaching. If people don’t learn from what I do, I should be allowed to blame them, not myself.
Yet in another way, actual teaching does have to result in actual learning. The plans we write for our classes, if they’re well-conceived, ought to be more likely to cause learning than the random events and dialogues that occur elsewhere.
But there are accidental teachers all around – teachers who don’t write lesson plans, and may not even think they’re teaching. Moreover, there are teachers who do write plans, but end up teaching things they didn’t plan to teach – may not even know they’re teaching. Accidental teachers.

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