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February, 2017


by Valerie

Can somebody be a born teacher? Or does the ability to help others learn need to be, well, learned? When I was a fairly young kid, I certainly liked to play "school" with my little sister. It might have had a lot to do with the essential prop: a chalkboard. That blank slate just pleaded to be written upon. Content didn't matter; it could be math or spelling or penmanship. Labeling the parts of a plant, listing the colors of the rainbow, or drawing a diagram of the planets circling the sun would do as well. The simple act of writing down the exciting things I'd learned in school in order to share them with my younger sibling just seemed like an engaging thing to do. I'm not sure if she liked it or not, but she submitted, perhaps because I was older, and, early in life, a couple of years makes a big difference. At one point, I had TWICE as much experience under my belt as she had. By high school, there is not all that much disparity between the sophomore and senior years, but in elementary school, a third grader has what seems like a vast amount of knowledge not yet gained by a first grader.

I do not remember ever being on the receiving end of a play school session. I was always the teacher. I'm certain that if our ages had been reversed, so would the roles. Anyway, playing school with my sister was something that was quickly outgrown. In our home life, it was replaced with activities that involved mutual exploration of the world. Whether we were entertaining ourselves exploring in the woods while our parents were off mushroom hunting, listening and dancing to 45 rpm records, watching Saturday morning cartoons on our old black and white television (with the sound down low because the adults had not yet gotten up), making up stories with our dolls and dinosaurs, or perusing picture books, we often discussed the things we encountered, our thoughts about them, and how they fit into our ever expanding environment. As we got older, we both gravitated towards art, music and biology. Our ages were close enough that we belonged to some of the same organizations and so had many shared experiences. We both enjoyed playing musical instruments, dissecting road kill, collecting fossils and catching small aquatic animals for our aquarium. Upon retrospection, it is obvious that we both learned more because we shared our ideas, questions and insights into all the engaging things we found and experienced.

While I was a student in school, I, like many others, sometimes also took on the role of teacher. Presenting a research project to the class, helping younger students with reading, or contributing my part to a group assignment all gave me a nudge into the other end of the information exchange. I was frequently bored in classes, so having a little extra responsibility certainly distracted me from being a trouble-maker. While rule-bending (okay, -breaking) came quite naturally, so did explaining complex subjects to classmates who didn't always catch on as quickly. Friends don't let friends get bad grades.

I started teaching in a more official capacity when I was a freshman in high school. As part of the local band program, some high school students tutored the fifth graders beginning on the same instrument. The two schools were only a short distance apart, so after classes ended, groups of youngsters walked over to the high school for their weekly private lessons. At $1 for a half hour, this was an economical way to give beginners the personal attention they needed while at the same time allowing older students to gain skill in teaching and a little income to boot. Guiding my private clarinet students made me organize my thoughts, come up with new ways to communicate concepts (until the proverbial light bulb finally appeared) and persist until problems were resolved, no matter how long it took. It was one of the most effective methods of learning I had ever experienced. It also helped the students.

The fact that I was receiving music lessons from my teachers while giving them to my students made it abundantly clear that it was all of a piece, from my perspective. When I later began studying the violin, I was both a beginner on that instrument and a teacher who could appreciate the techniques that I observe being used by my own, more accomplished, teacher.

One thing I noticed about clarinet instruction was that it was much more engaging than, say, helping a student who had problems reading. I concluded that I didn't really like teaching as much as I liked certain subjects. If it was interesting to me, I couldn't see how it wouldn't also be interesting to others. Luckily, providing private lessons has been a mainstay occupation for musicians for centuries, so I had a marketable skill that was always in demand. One drawback, though, to teaching youngsters is that they are not necessarily motivated to do their best. Some don't have the patience, or the desire, or don't even like music, and are just taking lessons because their parents tell them to. I'm not one of those notable teachers who can inspire anyone to high achievement. If I wanted to pull teeth, I'd have been a dentist.

After 30 years of teaching music lessons, I was not at all reluctant to retire when I got the chance. It gave me the time to pursue my other interests, which was sort of like going back to school, but without formal teachers, classes or a schedule. If I wanted to learn about something, I studied it, found an expert to query, read about it, or joined an organization that would provide new related opportunities. When I was younger and struggling to make a decent living, I never thought I would volunteer for anything in any way, shape or form. However, age has changed my mind. Doing something that I enjoy and find stimulating is worth doing for free.

Among adults with a penchant for lifelong learning, I think I've found an ideal venue for my teaching proclivity, and it is not in music but in biology. Using photography, observational skills and small group settings, exploring the natural world, especially through entomology and botany, seems to satisfy my curiosity and desire to network with others. Every new encounter, insight or bit of information is a delight as we piece together a coherent understanding of our fascinating planet. I find that guiding a group of enthusiastic people through a structured curriculum has far more rewards than expenditures.

Now, long into a life that has included many types of teaching and learning, it seems unmistakably obvious that the two experiences are simply aspects of a single entity. The difference between teacher and student is quite narrow and has more to do with age, leadership or responsibility roles than with the direction information is flowing. The best situations involve people with different strengths and backgrounds so that they complement each other, contributing various components to the knowledge base they are all developing. For the sake of organization, most classes must have a leader and participants, but "teacher" and "student" are flexible labels that do not stick too tightly. And that is to everyone's advantage.

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