Interrogative Imperative Institute

Rudyard Kipling said that "Words are the most powerful drugs used by mankind",

and, if so, education is a complex mode of delivery for introducing mind- and soul-altering entities into people of all ages ... a modality which both affects the efficacy of such drugs, and, as well, is affected by them.

Reflections On Education

The essay to the right is from the book: Reflections on Education and Learning. If you like what you read, you might want to purchase a copy of the book. You can do this by going to either:

Reflections on Education and Learning

Qualities of a Teacher

There may be many individuals within education who have the qualities that are to be described in what follows. However, I tend to doubt this is so, for, if such were true, then education - public, private, and higher, would be vastly different than is, unfortunately, the case.

On a personal level, there are only a precious few individuals with whom I have had the good fortune to come in contact who gave expression to all the qualities outlined below. Moreover, of this select group, only one came from within formal education.

My sample, of course, is limited and, possibly, skewed by my own biases. Nonetheless, I have been exposed to school systems in a number of countries, and on a variety of levels - both as a student and teacher - and I wish, with all my heart, I could report that the sort of qualities about to be explored were far more prevalent than what I have been able to observe.

If the foregoing claim accurately reflects the condition of formal education, there are a number of factors underlying this sad state of affairs. In the last part of this essay, a few words will be directed toward addressing some of those causal factors.

There is much that could be said about any of the following qualities. The intention here is merely to offer an overview of each one - something of a thumbnail sketch. Furthermore, the qualities are introduced in no particular order of importance - since, in truth, all of them are, in many ways, equally important.

Honesty - Although always guided by a sense of propriety concerning circumstances, a teacher is someone who bears witness to the truth as she or he understands it, and does so without preaching rancor, or being overbearing. More often than not, this honesty is given expression according to the perceived need of a person (or persons) for what is being said or done, as well as the ability of the one(s) with whom the teacher is interacting to handle and make use of what is being said or done. As required, what is said and/or done may be issued in a diplomatic fashion, or it may be expressed more directly and openly.

Committed - The duty of care is always directed toward the needs of the one who is seeking after learning and understanding. The commitment is not to society, government, business, parents, or school, but to the individual, and this is done with the knowledge that if the needs of the individual are properly attended to, then, society, business, parents, and the school will all benefit as a result of the primary directive, as it were, being served. A corollary of the foregoing principle is that a teacher would never sacrifice the needs, interests, and potential of students for the self-centered, self-serving, and arbitrary whims of politicians, officials, administrators, or unions.

Flexible - A teacher is not tied to any preconceived way of doing things. He or she is open to the possibilities of the moment and is prepared to pursue whatever avenues that appear to be most resonant with the needs, interests, and circumstances of those who are seeking after knowledge and understanding. If something is tried and is not working - in the sense of lacking in heuristic value for the other participants - the teacher will be ready to switch gears.

Humility - They do not think of their abilities, talents, accomplishments, or experiences as reflecting something special about them as individuals. They are quick to acknowledge the help, guidance, efforts, and support of other people as being more responsible for what they are and have than is anything which comes from them as individuals.

Balanced - They bring emotional, cognitive, community, interpersonal, economic, physical, and spiritual dimensions together in due proportions. They recognize human nature as complex and that the health of that nature depends on the integration of various potentials within human beings.

Democratic - They are not necessarily right or left of center, or even involved in political life, but they have an abiding devotion to issues of freedom, justice, fairness, equality, and truth as benchmarks that are crucial to the viability and success of both education and community. These issues are not just theoretical entities to them but are meant to be put into practice in order to benefit all participants. Yet, the manner of implementation is not only non-authoritarian or non-coercive in character, but seeks to find paths to either consensus or ways of operating within a framework of acknowledged and accepted differences of perspective.

Respectful - They do not intrude into the lives of people and will accept the boundaries that are established. At the same time, they are ready to respond in whatever way they can when invitations are extended.

Character - They offer models of values, ethics, and/or spirituality through who they are and what they do, not by lecturing. They do not necessarily speak about kindness, generosity, love, tolerance, patience, or compassion - rather, they are these things and give expression to them through the way they go about life.

Consistent - What they say is reflected in what they do, and vice versa. They are not different in different circumstances but always centered within their sense of self, although often in low-key ways. They are sincere in everything they do and say without being annoying in the process.

Given to Reciprocity - Such qualities as trust, openness, warmth, respect, and friendliness are treated as two way streets for which the teacher has the primary duty of care with respect to establishing precedents in each instance.

Tolerant - A teacher recognizes that people come in all manner of shapes, sizes, colors, temperaments, interests, needs, personalities, beliefs, and values. The goal is not to change people in ways that are pre-determined, but to work with them, according to their capacity and ability, to help them realize their potential.

Realistic - They understand the ways things are politically, socially, economically, biologically, and emotionally. Yet, without trying to persuade others to adopt any particular point of view, they do whatever they can to help prepare individuals to deal with these realities in a manner that will not open either individuals or society to the destructive potentials which are inherent in human beings, both individually and collectively.

Idealistic - They are committed to such qualities as: truth, freedom, justice, equality, fairness, love, compassion, kindness, and honesty. In addition, while they realize that these qualities are often only approachable as a limit, nevertheless, they spend their lives seeking to realize these qualities in deeper and more refined ways so that others may benefit through the teacher being the best that he or she can be.

Sense of Self - They know who they are. They are aware of both their strengths and their weaknesses. They appreciate their history, and they have a destination toward which they are striving, as well as a means through which to undertake the journey.

Unambitious - They are unconcerned with achieving career status, monetary rewards, or recognition by others. Teaching is not a means to something else, but a way of sharing whatever they have with others.

Independent - The 'road less traveled' seems to be their preferred path. They do not operate according to the expectations of others, nor do they change themselves to suit the likes and dislikes of those around them. Yet, they tend not to be confrontational, arrogant, or belligerent in the manner through which they give expression to their independence.

Supportive - They offer a context of security within which individuals can explore possibilities without fear of ridicule or adverse consequences for making mistakes. They encourage people to find out about themselves and the world around them, but to do so at their own pace, as well as in accordance with their particular package of capacities, talents, and interests.

Humanitarian - Loves people. Believes in them. Wants them to realize whatever potential they have and be happy in doing so. Cares for people and will do whatever she or he can to assist them along the path of life.

Courageous - In a very unassuming way, they have faced the 'stings and arrows of outrageous fortune' and have opposed them - not with arms - but with steadfastness, optimism, and a willingness, if necessary, to fail while committing all that one has and is to the process of life.

Self-critical - They are very aware of their own weaknesses or limitations, along with the need to continually make efforts to improve as a person. Moreover, they are open to receiving criticism from others - accepting what is true, discarding the rest, and using what is true to try to become better human beings.

Challenging - They have an aura about them that - to slightly paraphrase Jack Nicholson's line to Helen Hunt - 'makes you want to be a better person'. Their very mode of being in the world inspires people and, in the process, induces others to seek to explore, learn, discover, and make efforts toward self-realization.

Friendly - They do not approach people as teachers or educators or instructors, but as friends who are their well-wishers. They are there for people when the latter need them. They are protective, faithful, and non-judgmental. They listen and care about what they are hearing.

Rigorous - They operate in accordance with a set of standards which critically probes experience in a deliberate, thorough, considered, and patient manner. They are not inclined to accept facile or shallow answers - either from themselves or others. They enjoy pushing the envelope on matters of critical inquiry.

Teachable - They demonstrate a willingness to learn from their interactions with others. They are aware of the many facets of their own ignorance and treat the insights and abilities of others - including those of so-called 'students' - as so many 'found treasures'.

Optimistic - This is not the optimism of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, but that of someone who has faith in human beings who are provided with the degrees of freedom necessary to explore, develop, and realize the potential of the latter. This is an optimism in the idea that opportunity arising in a context free from exploitive, authoritarian, and manipulative influences will be embraced by those who are trusted with the duties of care which accompany such opportunity. They know there will be exceptions to this principle, but they do not let this sort of risk get in the way of that which would benefit the many.

Open - They are guileless. They are people of integrity and tend to treat others as people of integrity as well - an integrity which entails respect, honesty, sincerity, and an absence of duplicity. On the other hand, they are not inclined to be people who provide one with more personal information than one wishes to hear.

Forgiving - They understand that mistakes and errors are part of what being human involves. They recognize that mistakes and errors form an important part of the fabric of experience out of which learning arises. They are inclined to help people to develop maturity through encounters with such problems and, then, move on to other issues without letting interpersonal history interfere with opportunities for learning.

Unassuming - They are not pretentious with respect to what they know or have done. They are comfortable with what they understand but have no need to impose this on others or force others to acknowledge such things. Furthermore, they have no expectations concerning how others with whom they interact should approach learning.

Appreciative - They have gratitude for the gift of life and embrace the many levels of opportunity which life offers human beings. They appreciate the efforts and struggles of anyone who sincerely seeks to take advantage of such opportunity.

Inquisitive - They are inclined to ask important, essential questions about: truth, justice, freedom, equality, purpose, identity, love, commitment, beliefs, values, and understanding. They do not have an idle curiosity but are inquisitive about human nature and what it means to be, rather than not at all. More often than not they represent a model of how to ask questions, and what kinds of question are important to reflect upon, but allow people to be free to find their own way to solutions to these questions that make sense within the framework of a given individual's circumstances, interests, and abilities.

Generous - They are free with their knowledge, time, help, personal resources, and encouragement. They are forthcoming in their praise and appreciation of others without trying to flatter people or give them a false sense of accomplishment.

Patient - They know that understanding and learning do not always come easily for everyone in all situations. They are cognizant of individual differences in circumstance, development, ability, temperament, interest, and aptitude. They have some degree of insight into the many factors which need to come together in order for important kinds of learning to occur. They wait, observe, listen, and try to be receptive to the advent of so-called 'teachable moments', but, in the meantime, they do whatever they can to pave the way to such moments or to make them more likely to occur, than not. They do not have an hidden agenda, nor do they feel the need to cover so much material, of a particular kind, in a given time.

Sense of Humor - They do not take themselves too seriously. They can enjoy the lighter side of life, as well as poke fun at some of the absurdities which are disclosed through the locus of manifestation known as a human being - including themselves. In addition, without being disrespectful or insensitive to circumstances, they often take some of the edge away from life's darker side through laughter.

Fair - More often than not, essential learning and understanding arise out of circumstances in which an individual is comfortable with, and trusts, those circumstances. An important component in the development of such a sense of comfort and trust is to feel that one is being treated fairly. A teacher acknowledges this and does whatever is possible and feasible to create such circumstances by, among other things, removing as much arbitrariness, artificiality, bias, favoritism, prejudice, and irrelevancy as possible from the context of would-be learning - all of which serve as cultures conducive to the growth of unfairness.

Pragmatic - Teachers make do with what is reasonably available to those who are seeking to learn and understand. Teachers encourage students to do so as well, but, in addition, encourage the latter to be resourceful and creative in relation to discovering what is amenable to being used in the pursuit of learning.

Gentle - As much as possible, teachers employ non- intrusive means for stimulating opportunities for learning and understanding. This means that, whenever possible, they employ modalities that are devoid of influences which are punitive, destructive of self-esteem, rooted in extrinsic rewards, competitive, or steeped in stress - all of which have been shown, experimentally and clinically, to interfere with learning, both short-term, as well as long-term.

Competent - They 'got game' in relation to life. Whatever they know in the way of facts, methods, history, names, formulae, and/or ideas is secondary to their grasp of the principles of how to engage life in order to work toward the realization of individual potential. This is not to say that the former sort of things are necessarily unimportant (although they often are), but the priorities must be clear. To possess the former in the relative absence of the latter is, for the most part, extremely limited and limiting, if not altogether useless.

Uncompromising - when it comes to abiding by the truth in terms of themselves but without making anyone else feel, in the process, that the latter are expected to follow suit or are being judged according to whether, or not, the latter go along with what the 'teacher' says or does.

Self-sacrificing - They are willing to take a 'hit' in order to protect, support, and serve their students, and, yet, a teacher often does this in private and without others knowing that it is being done. They do not see such behavior as being self-sacrificial, but as being part of the duty of care which any friendship deserves.

Protective - They understand, all to well, what awaits students once the latter are removed from the sanctuary that arises within the sphere of influence which has been established through a teacher's manner of giving expression to the duties of care entailed by the vocation of teaching. A teacher tries to preserve the sanctuary and protect its inhabitants for as long as possible - considering every moment spent within the sanctuary as providing students with that much better chance of surviving in the wild where many kinds of two-legged predators roam.

At the beginning of this essay, a claim was made that there may be few people in formal education who exhibit all of the foregoing qualities - although they might have this or that characteristic or some small sub-set of such qualties. If this is so, why should this be the case?

One crucial reason for this state of affairs is that there are few places of learning which have the resources or competance necessary for teaching people how to be 'teachers' in the foregoing sense. You can't teach what you don't know, understand, appreciate, or aspire to.

A second, fundamental reason for the set of circumstances existing vis-a-vis the absence of 'teachers' is that many different elements within formal education tend to conspire together, knowingly and unknowingly, in order to drive out anyone who demonstrates the quality of being a teacher in the previously noted ways. This is done because teachers in the sense outlined above threaten too many vested interests that seek to initiate students into the modern form of indentured servitude within certain kinds of political, economic, and philosophical ideologies, and, as such, teachers in the sense specified earlier are largely antithetical to the agendas being pushed in much of elementary, secondary, and post-secondary education. As such, 'teachers' in the foregoing sense are considered to be 'loose cannons' who cannot be relied on to serve political, economic, social, and expedient interests which are not capable of serving an individual's essential potential for self-realization.

Occasionally, in spite of the prevailing mind and heart set within formal education, one comes across someone who reflects the qualities of a teacher as outlined above. However, my experience has been that, more often than not, to the extent one comes across such people at all, one will find them outside the hallowed halls of formal education - and, even there, they may be an endangered species, for the same destructive forces that are shaping much of modern education are also present outside the classroom and wish to be rid of the influence of such 'teachers' for the same reasons as were indicated above.

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Reflections on Education and Learning