Saturday, September 1, 2012

On Teaching History

I looked up the movie Amadeus on Youtube and relished the scene of Mozart showing off his genius to a stunned Emperor Joseph II.

Below the clip was this comment: 
How on earth do history teachers manage to make this boring is beyond me. I hated learning about Mozart in school but the movie is one of my all time favorites!

Yes, how do teachers manage to make history boring? Or any subject? I’ve pondered this for years. Further down came this comment, a proffered explanation:

Most teachers suck at their job, and are unable to animate their teachings, to make us visualize history... just like reading a good book. They methodically read plain text that you can find in a book and expect us to enjoy it. You don’t become a good teacher with just the diploma, you need people skills.

So to be a good teacher you need “people skills”? Ah, people skills—the magical ingredient of human communication. People skills come in so many varieties: Empathy. Sarcastic engagement. Urbane wit. Ability to “share.” Socratic questioning. Which ones translate into effective teaching?

Let me offer you a model: The finest teacher I ever knew died a few weeks ago at age 93. He came from Tennessee, graduated from Harvard, and taught history at the University of Washington for four decades.

What “people skills” did Professor Tom Pressly possess? I can hear his voice in my mind right now. He is talking about events long past. The words stream out in a soft Southern accent. His two palms line up in parallel—now vertically, now shifting to the horizontal as he makes his next point. His smile breaks forth. He is bemused by the latest academic fad. He has no authoritative pretense. All he says has simple clarity—and seems to apply to all of life, now and forever.

After considering explanations for the oddest or most wonderful or most ghastly events, he gives his conclusion, as if from a faraway vantage point: “I am never surprised by what they do or why they do it. After all, these are human beings.”

Was it “people skills” that left thousands of students wiser, better informed and inspired by Tom Pressly?

I’d say his abilities came naturally from deep within. He took full responsibility for each student's engagement in the subject. At bottom, it seems to me, rested this fundamental code:
I am your teacher and, thus, I owe you.



Anonymous said...

I have been in many history classes where the professor managed to drain the life out of the most fascinating and dramatic subjects through obtuse speech and the assignment of bone-dry texts. If only every teacher took to heart those final words!

brandsinger said...

Thanks, anonymous one.
History is the tale of human life itself. I guess it takes real talent to make that dull.