Thursday, April 19, 2007

Virginia Tech: I Grieve for the Teachers

Photo courtesy of AFP/Mannie Garcia

In the last couple of days I've been thinking about the responsibility of teachers for students. Even in college, when students are (mostly) adults, the teacher has an awesome responsibility in so many ways. Responsibility for giving them the best possible opportunity to learn ( students must, in the end, take responsibility for their own learning), responsibility for helping them to prepare for the workplace or for further education, responsibility for paying attention to problems that may manifest themselves and calling in extra help when needed, and responsibility for the physical care of students when they are under your direct charge in the classroom.

My Dad taught at the college level for 50 years, I taught for 10 years, and one of my sons is working on a doctorate and planning a teaching career. I think I can say safely that we all got to teaching through love of our discipline, and a desire to help others to understand it. But unlike the training and licensure of teachers that occurs in the elementary and high school systems, there is very little training of college professors to teach. You are thrown into the classroom at some point and you may or may not be very good at it. If you care to improve, you can seek out the opinions of your colleagues. But in most cases, no one is going to sit in on your classes more often than once or twice a year, or coach you, and in an academic setting it often seems to be poor form to admit that you need help. Student teaching evaluations are often pooh-poohed as "beauty contests" by the faculty who need to improve their teaching the most. And somewhere the faculty policy manual, or the fire alarm evaucation procedures, or other dusty and unread documents, define your role in various situations. But learning to be a good teacher seems to be mostly a matter of trial and error.

And yet, during the terrible tragedy in Virginia earlier this week, five of the dead were faculty members. That's a ratio of 1:5--which means that teachers were killed at at least twice the rate of students. In reading some of the stories, I saw that several faculty members stayed behind in the classroom, holding the door and waiting for their students to jump out the windows, before being gunned down in the end. To give your life for your students--that is an extension of that enormous responsibility for students to an extraordinary level.

I grieve and pray for everyone involved in this tragedy, but in particular I grieve and pray for the teachers--those who died, those who tried to get help for an obviously troubled student, and those who will go on caring for students. You are all heroes.

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