Teaching: A Two-way Path to Lifelong Learning

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.

Haim Ginott

I left teaching in 2008. As the years pass, I realize that I left a bit of myself there too. In the lives of all the students I taught and in all the ways they enriched my soul.

For the past decade I have worked in the government contracting industry as a developer of training and educational products for the Department of Defense (DoD). Still a form of teaching, I suppose, but not in the same way as the fifteen years I spent in the classroom and as a coach. Those years, I admit, were the pinnacle of my career, for nothing else I would ever do would feed my soul or fill my heart with so much gratitude and pride.

My students are now adults, college graduates, husbands and wives, parents, contributing in their own ways, to the world around them. I keep in touch with many of them, thanks to the ease of social media, and I’ve even worked with a few of them at times. They still call me, “Ms. Fenwick, or Fenny,” even though I tell them they can call me “Jennifer,” now that they are grown. They have a hard time with that, as I suppose no matter how old they get, I’ll always be their teacher. A title I wear with extreme pride. As much pride as I feel every time I see their successes, celebrate another milestone in their lives, or witness the moments in which they truly blossom.

Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone’s knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier.

John Dewey

For a year or two, I was witness to their growth and learning every day, then I had to let them go – on to the next chapter of their lives. But I never stopped holding them in my heart, and more than that, I never stopped being poignantly humbled and eternally grateful for all the lessons they taught me.

Empowering my students was a daily goal. Teaching them to think for themselves and to embark on a journey where seeking knowledge was always at the forefront.

For the short time I had them, I felt a deep sense of responsibility for helping to shape their attitudes and perceptions toward knowledge and learning, and not simply to just teach them American History. “Learning,” I’d explain to them, “is a lifelong endeavor. It’s not something that has a finite end, but instead, it’s something that continually shapes our lives and ultimately our growth.” And truly, isn’t that the real goal of education, to continually grow and evolve, as we gain knowledge through experience, as well as through education?

Understanding that middle school students wouldn’t understand this perspective from my words only, I set about teaching them through example. My goal? To instill in them a lifelong desire for knowledge; a deep and intrinsic desire to continually ask questions and to seek, of their own volition, the answers. In my own experience, and through the guidance of my parents and some of my own teachers, I was shown the value of the quest and ultimately the lasting effect of earning knowledge.

As a history teacher, I found myself in the unique position of being a mentor to hundreds of students over the course of the fifteen years I taught. I took that position very seriously, constantly seeking new and meaningful ways to teach my kids the great importance of looking deeper than the history books, beneath all the clutter and noise, in order to find a truth that does exist. It takes time and focused research, which in this day and age, is becoming a lost art. Still, the impact of seeking, of being willing to dig deeper, is so very rewarding and necessary if we are to become informed citizens. 

One of the easiest, and most underused methods available to us all is simply this, learn to perfect the art of distinguishing fact from opinion. In doing so, you become more adept at drawing relevant conclusions, thus arming yourself with one of the most powerful weapons available, knowledge that is earned and not simply given. It’s not hard, but it makes such an important difference. 

When we were embarking on the history of the U.S. Constitution, I wondered, what better way for them to understand the process, the debate, the compromises that went into shaping this document, then to recreate the Constitutional Convention in my classroom? To assign each of them to the role of one of the delegates? To give them the opportunity to step into the past and assume the perspectives, if they could, of the very men who met in the Summer of 1787 to draft the document? It wasn’t the names and the dates, after all, that were important, but rather the lessons learned and the words that were drafted, that still held relevance today, that were at the heart of the lesson.

From the activity, many questions arose, many debates ensued, and many new perspectives were gained. I think one of the most important lessons my students learned, something I myself had learned when I was their age, was that history should not be judged by the principles of the present, but rather we should acknowledge the evolution of those thought processes and the changing mindset of ensuing generations. How else are we to learn from the past? How else will we prevent the repetition of events that have already transpired, that have already been sacrificed for, that have already left their indelible marks?

There’s a wealth of beauty and sustaining principles upon which our country is founded. Is it perfect? No. But I firmly believe it strives to be. I’m not talking about politics here, I’m speaking of the rich and meaningful history of our country. The good and the bad. The foundations upon which our Constitution was founded and the amendments that have been added since the Bill of Rights. The foundations that have guided us through centuries of growth and progress, through wars and discord, through changing centuries and a changing world. These are not obsolete, but very much relevant even to this day. 

Good teaching is more a giving of right questions than a giving of right answers.

Josef Albers

When studying the U. S. Civil War, my classroom became a replica of the country during that period of our history. My students were divided into the Union and the Confederacy. They were tasked with researching each battle, each conflict, each principle, from the perspective of the side they were on. It was difficult at times. There were many issues that were difficult for them to wrap their minds around, many questions that we needed to address together. But in the end, by the time we reached the surrender at Appomattox, they shone with a sense of pride, and a deeper understanding of one of the most poignant and agonizing periods of American History.

Above all, I hoped that they walked away with a deeper understanding of the power of actively pursuing knowledge, rather than simply receiving it; of being willing to ask the questions, of doing the research, and seeking the answers on their own, and then, and only then, when armed with the information and the facts, in forming their own, individual opinions. Their successes became my reward. Their pride in themselves for a job well-done, my gift.

The teacher’s task is to initiate the learning process and then get out of the way.

John Warren

Teaching is in fact a calling. There are no grandiose salaries. The work itself can be at times, frustrating and it often goes unappreciated. Our society doesn’t go out of its way to value teachers or to stress the importance of their role in the lives of future generations. Teachers go into this profession, knowing and understanding that. But thankfully, still go into it nonetheless.

I can only hope and pray that the call to teaching continues to beckon future generations. That individuals who understand the value and necessity of embarking on this career, aren’t dissuaded by the negative aspects, but look at it instead as an opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of so many.

You may be wondering at this point, if I feel so strongly about this profession, why I left? It wasn’t an easy decision, nor was it one I took lightly. An opportunity that enabled me to provide more financial support for my family, better benefits, and a better retirement package presented itself. It was as hard and as simple as that.

Though my new position has many perks, it hasn’t, nor will it ever, replace the things I gave up when I left teaching. I will always be an educator at heart. And though I’ve been out of the profession for a decade, I continue to support my fellow educators and the individuals and programs that give them the support and the tools they need to continue to do their jobs effectively and with passion.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see (Alexandra K. Trenfor),” while, “A good student is one who will teach you something (Hanifa Jackson-Adderly).

That’s the beauty of being a teacher. It’s a two-way path. The path we chose, to become teachers and the preparation we undergo to ensure we are effective ones; and the path our students walk; eager to learn, often frustrated and combative, wanting desperately to reach that capstone year so they can graduate and enter the “real world” finally.

My students are now young adults, embarking on their own lives and successfully pursuing their goals. In my heart though, they will always be the best reminders of what it truly means to teach, to inspire, and for me, to always be a lifelong learner.

I encouraged my students to strive to become individuals of accomplishment in their quest for knowledge as much as they were in the other areas of their lives. I reminded them daily that they lived in a country that values and protects their right to do so. That they should, in fact, embrace this gift and even more, actively seek knowledge, for it is this that will ultimately enable us to prevail and to grow from generation to generation.

Afterall, The best and most lasting gift we can give our students, is the ability to critically think and the desire and passion to pursue knowledge and learning throughout their lives.

It must be remembered that the purpose of education is not to fill the minds of students with facts – it is to teach them to think, if that is possible, and to always think for themselves.

Robert Hutchins

(©2019)  Jennifer N. Fenwick, former teacher and author Four Weeks and In the Eye of the Storm