Truth be told, I stumbled into teaching accidentally; a chance meeting with one of my former professors (who was getting ready to migrate to Australia at that time) led to an opportunity to take her place. Becoming a teacher was the one path I never thought I would take – but I am thankful about the way the stars seem to have crossed at just the right time, because I am more passionate about being an educator than I was about being an engineer.
However, since all this was unplanned, and everything happened so fast (I got a call at 9 in the morning one day saying that I was going to teach an Algebra class at 1:30 in the afternoon that very same day), I never really prepared myself to become a teacher. I did not have time to reflect upon what I was going to be, about what my mission and duty was. When I first set foot in the classroom to “teach,” I had a rather limited and myopic view of what I was there for: syllabus in hand, I basically presented what was in my hand on the board and hoped for the best.
A lot has happened since that first day, and thankfully so. The very fact that I am here doing what I am doing now says a lot. But the discussion on the duties of a faculty member, and reading the chapter To Teach in Donald Kennedy’s book Academic Duty, led me to think some more about what it really takes to teach, and to become a teacher. And one of the things that struck me the most in Kennedy’s treatise is where a teacher is able to give the most impact.
Many of the research efforts that I have encountered when I started in the engineering education program focused on the things that happen inside the classroom, or in the context of completing a course and teaching a class. While this is certainly very important, and while it is quite accurate that the classroom is the gateway for interaction between teachers and students, Kennedy makes a very important point that many teachers probably realize: what is perhaps the most important role of a teacher happens outside the classroom – making a difference in students’ lives.
Kennedy shares some insights provided by work done by Prof. Alexander Astin (which can also be found in Astin’s book, What Matters Most in College, also an interesting read). According to Astin’s work, what students value and appreciate the most while pursuing their college degrees is the opportunity to engage in “meaningful contact with thoughtful elders.” Students are more likely to remember a faculty member or two who have served as their role models, as their inspiration for how they will conduct themselves as they leave the four walls of the classroom and become productive members of society. The fact that they also taught the all-important principles, concepts, and mathematical formulae is just icing on the cake.
Reflecting on my own experience and the twists and turns in my own life, I found this unique combination that I would call both duty and opportunity – to make a difference in young lives – as the very core of my existence as a teacher. From this, all else will follow – how carefully I prepare my syllabus, how much I reflect about the interaction in my class today, and how much I use that reflection to inform how I will teach tomorrow.
My most treasured memories consist of students who have left the University but still continue to correspond and interact with me. Students who now choose to share their lives, successes, and tribulations with me – even though they no longer need to. Some of them have even given me the name “Mama” as a term of endearment. They make me feel that I am very much a part of their lives, and of who they have become. That, more than anything, drives me to move forward; it is why I have chosen, and continue to go down this path that is: to teach.