Sometimes a teacher chooses between honesty and kindness. Even if you accept that your standards may be flawed or your expectations erroneous, the paper before you seems unsatisfactory and, to be true to yourself and what you feel you know, you have to criticize.

I worry about being cruel but worry just as much about being so gentle I deny students the instruction I’m charged to give. Shall I praise the best elements in their writing when growth means seeing what they might do and aren’t doing?  Should I show them how I’d reword a sentence or beef-up a paragraph when they may see those edits as my egotism and/or their humiliation?

Teachers know all about “Teachable moments,” sunlight and shadow shifting suddenly to illuminate new ground. Unfortunately, those moments are too rare.

Before Siddhartha became the Buddha, one of his early gurus said, “You may stay here with me,” and promised, “a wise man can soon dwell in his teacher’s knowledge and experience it directly for himself.”


I sometimes wonder if teaching is magic, the impossible act of one person beaming understanding to another. When a student compliments my writing instruction, my mind translates, “You’ve become more confident of your skills, and that confidence has led to experimentation and discovery.” I can perhaps communicate my practices, but those are largely tricks—how to avoid the passive voice, methods of breaking a big topic down into thoughtfully sequenced parts, exploiting words, images, and metaphors other people overlook. But the students have to do something with those tricks.

Siddhartha left his early guru. The future Buddha determined that, though he had mastered his teacher’s practices and understood the guru’s rationale, Siddhartha’s own questions remained. The answers lay within Siddhartha, and he would not find them in any teacher’s mind.

For me, the desire to learn is the most important requirement for learning, and I’m grateful people want me to teach them. Wary students—the distrustful, disgruntled, disdainful ones—may have understandable reasons for feeling as they do, but their attitude sometimes assures their stagnation. They can’t see or won’t acknowledge differences between their writing and models. They are reluctant to try any new technique I suggest. My honesty falls on deaf ears or, more accurately, ears plugged by fingers and distracted by steady humming. In those cases, even my kindness doesn’t penetrate. I’m irrelevant.

Yet teaching isn’t as simple as “Listen and you will learn” either. Sometimes students’ perverse desire to disagree isn’t perverse at all but central and necessary. You won’t learn if you aren’t ready, but being too acquiescent can be just as devastating. I once met with a student who wanted to know why she wasn’t making an “A” in my class. I affirmed her writing’s technical expertise but told her that, to develop her thinking, she had to do more than parrot discussion. She needed to offer fresh and independent observations and insights.

Her response: “Okay. I’ll do that, if that’s what you think I should do.”

I can’t teach desire, particularly desire that won’t satisfy for formulas or tricks. You won’t learn without putting every lesson to the test. Listening is important—in Siddhartha’s guru’s terms, only those who attempt to dwell in my knowledge and truly experience it for themselves will learn—but the rest relies on a loopy paradox: a student can only reveal how flawed or erroneous my standards and expectations are by trying them out… while questioning them rigorously… but looking for their truth.

Teachers threatened by “Why?” or “How come?” may have the wrong job. Siddhartha tried many paths before becoming the Buddha.

Good students keep their own questions. I don’t fear being honest when I meet someone who wants to know everything instead of wanting to know what I’m after. Students who credit me with teaching them how to write will probably say later that my lessons came at a vital moment or that I offered some valuable skills. Over time, a former teacher’s influence seems more and more limited, as it should. Teachers are only stops on students’ journeys, and education is their journey. Learning should be greater than teaching because curiosity, the engine of all knowledge and understanding, relies more on students than instructors.

The other day, I overheard a sophomore calling one of my colleagues “A terrible teacher” because he, the sophomore, “didn’t learn anything.” I almost stopped to correct him, to tell him that learning is always a partnership and that, in fact, students may bear greater responsibility for whatever learning does or doesn’t take place.

But I was late for class. I walked on. Honesty, I decided, wouldn’t help. He has to see that perspective for himself, and I didn’t have time to wait around for the kind arrival of a teachable moment.



Filed under Buddhism, Doubt, Education, Essays, High School Teaching, Teaching, Thoughts, Writing

2 responses to “Teachability

  1. As a lecturer I understand what you say and yes I always try to be honest and just but sometimes the students aren’t able to hear, and the optimist in me says: yet.

    I know that “yet” and sometimes feel like my job–which seems so frenetic day to day–is really more like the slow erosion of dripping water on a rock or the invisible influence of sunlight on a plant. The changes would be more satisfying if they were more obvious. Like you, I’m often honest hoping that, if it will take 172 repetitions of a suggestion for an idea to sink in, I should add mine to the pile. Thanks for commenting! –D.

  2. What is really bad is that my teen students never read the comments I make on their papers at all. They simply look at the grade and move on. I have, in the past few years, had students respond in writing to my comments. This has made a world of difference as many of them (not all mind you) but many of them take my comments to heart and change the way they write.

    One of my former colleagues used to make students type up her comments before they conferenced with her. I’m sure they thought it was busy work (I confess I thought it was silly too, at first) but, eavesdropping on her conversations with them, I often heard them say how helpful it was to look at all of the comments together. Okay, maybe they were just trying to please her, but she said it made the conferences more specific, substantial, and practical.

    I tried the technique recently, and it did make a difference, though it seemed to move some of them in a formulaic directions–“So if I do this, this, and this, my essay would make an A?” I struggle to convince them their writing will improve when they invest in their topics and when something is truly at stake. Many, I’m afraid, just seek to complete the work.

    Thanks so much for your comment. I hope you’ll visit again. –D

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