Monday Musings - Dialogue with the Door: Safe to Shore

What makes a great teacher? I had a lot of fun with the door this particular week. I really wanted to give students a voice to say what would help carry them through the semester. Overwhelmingly the answer was about food!! I think that is a fantastic answer. Maslow would also agree – if your belly isn’t full, it’s hard to learn. We have a breakfast program for the early years, but sometimes I think that we could use one at the college level too!

But there’s something more the students were saying when they talked about food being a great way to improve the classroom environment. It’s really about thoughtfulness and deepening that connection that’s conducive to learning. It’s a non-verbal way of communicating that students matter, mi casa es su casa, and that together we can partner in the learning.

As many of us head back to the classroom very shortly, it’s an opportune time to talk about what it means to be a great teacher. We can all think back to the teachers who affected us at various crossroads in our lives. Isn’t it amazing how many names we forget and how few are emblazoned in our memory? It’s humbling actually as a teacher to think that you can pour a ton of effort into your class, only to fade into the recesses of the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in your students’ long term memory.

The students who wrote on my door though gave me a very important clue as to what makes a great teacher – it’s one whose name will be remembered even when dementia sets in and recall starts to fade. It’s the teacher who is memorable for far more than what they ever taught in the classroom. And so that unforgettable name of a great teacher, written by my anonymous authors, is none other than Len. I wholeheartedly agree with the students’ sentiments about Len even though I have never sat in one of his classes.

Consider first, the context of my fellow basement dwellers. You see, I have only been a tenant for a year, having descended from the lofty second floor where multitudes of faculty congregate around the cacophony of the copier, the bulging boxes of mail, and the lounge where lunches are leisurely devoured. These faithful faculty later hover in the hallways as they gaze longingly at the green grass and gazebos. The second floor is always aflutter with activity and the familiar buzz of bodies flitting from class to class. The basement, however, has no outlook on the outside world, rather we gaze wistfully at the cement walls and listen to the steady whirr of protruding piping, the click-clack of the loading dock trolleys, and the cryptic codes transmitted from the Facilities radio frequency. BUT we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else! You see, the tenants in this lower level were meant to be the base of the college – the foundation that supports those who live and work around and above us. And, Len is one of those necessary neighbours whose mindset, manual labour, and music add a distinctive dimension to the dynamic environment we inhabit. And it is the students who join us in the basement, and who took the time to write on my door week after week, that truly understand the value of a solid educational footing.

To have a firm foundation to learn you need far more than textbooks and equipment. You need a great teacher who can illuminate the subject matter. Even though we have no windows in the basement, we have a ton of light. In fact, I would say that Len is the Lighthouse, the beacon of support and safety, who shines into those hallways and guides those who are trying to find their way on the sea of life. He is able to break through the superficial self-assurance that sometimes encroaches young scholars: “How you doin’, man?” I would hear all the time as the millwrights passed by my door. But the conversation never stopped there. He would pause his steps and listen a little closer. If a student showed even the slightest “meh” response, he’d call them on it, and take the time to hear them out, no matter what the issue was. Len was not just a teacher of the trades, he was a tutor on life. And this I witnessed day after day. I was like a buoy on the water bobbing around observing his calm and steady light that emitted peace. Len just radiated this sense of caring that can only come from someone who understands what it was like to be starting out years ago, searching for that knowledge, that confidence, and the security that it takes to be a man.

As students, or fellow faculty, there may have been fire before us this past year, but Len was brighter than that fire and he could lead anyone through the storm of doubt and fear; he literally could carry those in his path safely to shore. I saw it so many times. And so I may never have sat in one of his technical classes, but I certainly was present in his learning studio in the A hallway of the basement.

What makes a great teacher? The greatest of teachers impress us not because of their degrees but because they take the time to understand what their students need– whether that is food, a test review, or a listening ear. Like Len, they guide students on their life course, by providing them with a sure footing for their future with the light of optimism. And those teachers, well, they are unforgettable.

(This week's song choice is My Lighthouse by Rend Collective.)

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