Teaching in an Uncorrupted Classroom

As a teacher in lifelong learning programs, I am not required to create tests, grade papers, or fill out evaluations. Students enroll in classes simply to learn for the sake of learning. Needless to say, the classes are a joy to teach.

I had become accustomed as a high school teacher, to the constraints place on teachers from standardized testing, curriculum benchmarks, administrative trivia, and classroom disruptions. Teaching in lifelong learning programs, however, has given me a different perspective on what it means to be a teacher.

When I teach a lifelong learning class, I am teaching in what I have to call an “uncorrupted” classroom — all that matters is learning. My sole responsibility is to create worthwhile lessons that engage students.

Here's what becomes crystal clear when all the obstacles I faced to teaching in a public school are removed.

1. The best way to learn a subject is to teach it.
I have three university degrees and have been teaching history for over forty decades. I majored in music as an undergraduate and have spent decades reading about music, studying scores, listening to music, and teaching music to high school students. My experience and résumé should show that I am qualified to teach music history to lifelong learners. Why, then, do I spend so much time preparing to teach my classes for lifelong learners?

The answer is found in knowing what every teacher knows: you never really know a subject until you are asked to teach it. Time and effort spent organizing the content of a class and how to present it leads to a better mastery of the subject

I have always felt an obligation never to waste my students’ time. I want students to feel that I have a well-defined purpose in how I present information and that I am providing them with worthwhile lessons. I want students to feel I can answer questions or provide advice on where they might find answers on their own. Quite simply, I want students to believe that I know what I am doing.

I cannot achieve these objective unless I have mastered the subject I am teaching. Mastering the subject — knowing my stuff — liberates me to be flexible in how I deliver lessons. It helps me to know how to cover material efficiently.

Only when students sense that I have forgotten more about the subject than they have yet learned, I am then qualified to teach the class with integrity.

2. Students are not the only ones in the classroom trying to learn.
Experience has taught me that I often learn more from students than they learn from me. Students make comments or ask question that force me to reevaluate my knowledge of a subject or how I might change my approach to teaching the subject.

This has been true whether I am teaching high school students or lifelong learners.

For me, teaching is a process of constant self-evaluation. I am continuously monitoring what I do in the classroom and making adjustments, running my knowledge and skills through a gauntlet of questions and comments and seeing what remains when the process is over. In most cases, I come out the other side knowing more than when I began.

For the process to work, I must teach in a way that inspires the comments and questions that can help me gain a better understanding of the subject and how to teach it. Students should not be the only ones in the classroom learning something.

3. Teachers must find a way to connect the subject they teach to the lives and welfare of their students.
Effective teaching requires a teacher to make a subject relevant to the real world and the lives of their students. If not, the teacher’s lessons will fail to engage students, and everyone in the classroom — teachers and students — might as well be somewhere else.

Sometimes, when students are not motivated to learn, their lack of motivation comes from being unaware of how the subject is relevant to their lives. Teachers must therefore be abled to explain the wisdom of learning the subject. If students are not motivated, the teacher must work hard to find something that
will motivate them.

Even when teaching the self-motivated students I find in lifelong learning programs, I must choose information about music history that is worth knowing and make clear the reasons it is worth knowing. I must present the information in such a way that students understand the wisdom of learning it.

Explain a subject well, and it will engage the attention of the student. Explain the wisdom of learning a subject — even if it is only learning for the sake of learning — and students will do all they can to master what they are taught.

I should say that I am not an idealist on this issue. I spent a long time teaching in a public high school, and I know all too well just how hard it can be to motivate some students. Even though motivating certain students might be impossible, it’s still the job of the teacher to do everything then can to find something that works.

4. Teachers must have faith in their students and believe that every student can learn.
All good teaching stems from the belief that every student can learn. Indeed, I cannot be an effective teacher if I stand in front of classroom believing that some students will just never be able to learn what I am teaching. Whatever it takes, I must find a way to reach every student, to present the subject in a way that students who are having trouble will eventually understand what I am teaching.

Considering the types of students I teach in lifelong learning programs, it might seem that I don't need to pay much attention to this element of teaching. I suspect, however, that when I try to point out the main themes in the exposition at the beginning of Beethoven’s
Symphony No. 3, some students may not be able to hear what I am talking about. I suspect that when I point out how those themes are developed and how everything that is happening in those themes relates to what Beethoven is trying to say metaphorically throughout the entire symphony, some students might not be able to understand those metaphors.

Nevertheless, I will keep working at finding a way to explain the subject so that it makes sense. I will search for new ways to explain it. I will ask other students if they can explain it.

Whatever happens, I will never give up. Whatever it takes, I will find a way to help
all students learn what I am trying to teach.

5. A teacher's ability to inspire students is more important than the factual knowledge the curriculum requires.
Music students need to be taught the correct way to form an embouchure, hold an instrument, count rhythms, and phrase musical passages. However, if music students do not spend time alone, practicing their instruments, a teacher’s lessons are a waste of time. In the end, students are responsible for their own education. The job of a teacher is to guide them and do what is necessary to inspire them to learn on their own.

I often think about this element of teaching while preparing to teach lifelong learning classes. Although I must try to know all I can about the subject I am teaching, it is more important that I teach in a way that students are motivated to spend more time learning the subject on their own. I must make the subject so interesting that what students learn from me will not be enough.

Lifelong learning students generally come to class motivated to learn, but will I be able to keep them motivated? Will I make them want to return to class next week? Will I make them feel the class is worth their time?

In the end, if I have not motivated students to learn more on their own, I will have done little that really matters.

And what does all this mean?

I understand that my experiences with lifelong learners are not the normal situation for most teachers. I am simply trying to make a few comments about what it means to teach in an ideal, or uncorrupted, classroom.

I am also hoping to shine a light on how easy it is to corrupt the environment necessary for good teaching — and therefore learning — to take place.

The type of teaching I have described above can easily be corrupted by the actual situation confronted by most teachers in the public schools. In a public school, a single student’s bad behavior can subvert all the work a teacher has done and keep thirty other students from learning. Overcrowded schools and classrooms make it difficult for a teacher to determine the individual needs of students. Constant interruptions by administrators, teachers, students, parents, and community members break the flow of well-developed lessons. Inflexible benchmarks geared toward standardized testing and dictated from outside the classroom often keep a teacher from adapting to the various abilities and needs of their students. Paperwork for teachers can be so overwhelming that time for creating good lesson plans is lost to administrative requirements. Teachers then easily spend more time serving administrators than students.

The problems I confront teaching lifelong learning classes are obviously much different from what I faced as a high school teacher. However, I believe that what I have learned teaching lifelong learners applies to much more than teaching self-motivated and mature students.

What I have learned teaching in an uncorrupted classroom should be relevant to all teachers. At any grade level, teachers should know their subject well and be willing to keep learning. Teachers should be able connect what they teach to the lives of their students and believe that every student can learn. No teacher should ever give up trying to motivate and inspire students.

I have also learned that public schools should do more to eliminate the things that corrupt the learning process. Public school administrators should do more to reduce the demands made on teachers that take time away from preparing good lessons and serving students. They should do more to trust the professionalism of teachers and allow them to adjust their curriculum and lesson plans to fit the needs of students. They should do more to create an environment in which good teaching can flourish.

I understand that we cannot turn our public schools into lifelong learning programs. However, what I have learned teaching in those programs has confirmed my belief that we can do much more to get out of the way of our teachers and let them teach. We can do more to liberate teachers from the distractions that do not serve the needs of students. We can do more to get rid of the things that corrupt the process of teaching.

In regard to improving public schools, I propose that less is more. Fewer administrative demands made on teachers will lead to a better learning situation for children.