On the first day of teaching a writing class this semester I asked my students to share their writing challenges. The students spoke up (grammar, sentence structure, procrastination) while I wrote a list on the board. At one point a student mentioned that he disliked writing about an assigned topic because it often was not something he cared about enough to research. Before I could respond, another student spoke up, “You know something that helps with that…” and proceeded to kindly share a new way of looking at the challenge.
I want my students to feel empowered to teach each other. If my students can teach each other, then they will also learn from each other. You see, an instructor—in order to instruct—must have a student, and a student—in order to learn—must have a teacher. The roles require each other in order to exist. The most beautiful aspect of this harmonious relationship is that you can be both the teacher and the student. Both roles are within you.
It is a unique experience to be both teacher and student at the same time. Filling both roles simultaneously can be exhausting: I have my own coursework to complete, while also planning coursework for my students. The experience is confusing: during my first semester of teaching I was overcome with ‘imposter syndrome’; I could not believe that I was given the responsibility of teaching twenty-two first year students. I am pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. I am teaching a first year writing course.
People often ask me if teaching improves my writing. My answer has been ‘no’. Teaching takes time, energy and creativity away from my essays. Now in my second year of teaching I have come to realize that my answer came too quickly; it was too simple. The truth is more complex. Being a writer makes me a better teacher of writing, and instructing young people to write sharpens my own writing skills. The best teacher is also a student.
Maintaining an identity as a student is more difficult. Our society values expertise and authority over practice and curiosity. In order to progress in a career, we are encouraged to know everything, be able to do it all, and never show a flicker of doubt. Questioning and curiosity are close friends with the phrase, “I don’t know”. What most people don’t realize is that that isn’t the entire phrase, there are three more that follow: “let’s find out”.
Sometime in the past month I heard someone say, “When you get past needing to know everything, you can learn anything.”
If you think of yourself as a student, then you will be more open to new experiences and challenges. Get rid of the idea that you have to know everything. We tend to associate teaching with age: older people know more so they have the experience to be teachers. Younger people have a lot to learn. While of course this is true in some instances, what those associations imply is that there is a moment in time when you stop being a student and become a teacher. This moment does not exist. Our lives are not broken up into neat categories; we exist on a spectrum. We are always getting older, but only a moment ago we were younger than we were. Continuing to learn, test and try new things (one of my favorite things to tell my students is that the word ‘essay’ comes from the French verb’ essayer’ which means ‘to try’) creates more opportunity for growth. Perhaps that growth means you do become a teacher. If you do find yourself instructing others, remember to keep learning.
I want my students to realize that they do not have to know everything. They cannot know everything. Our education system is built on skills of memorization and reproduction; test-taking reinforces a performative notion of knowledge but learning is a process that never ends. Last year one of my students wrote a research paper on the futility of the high school curriculum. She felt that what was taught in school had no real value whatsoever. She would rather have learned about credit scores, applying for loans, and writing a resume instead of geometry, history and literature. She had a point. None of what she learned in school was about being a lifelong learner, it was about performing on a test. In the world of teaching pedagogy (the methods used to teach), this is called product-focused learning. What I hope for my students is process-centered learning.
The process of learning never has to stop, ever. What do you want to learn? Is there something you’d like to try but you doubt your ability to develop a new set of skills? Start the learning process for yourself, no, re-start the process. We were brought into this world as curious children. We were born as students of texture, language, play, emotion and physical mobility. Everything you are doing with your life has been learned. Keep learning.