I get a refresher course in patience

I have always believed that a teacher's greatest virtue is patience. This is important from the outset of one's teaching career, but it becomes even more vital as time goes on. The reason is this: As a teacher becomes more familiar with and competent in the material, there tends to take root a presumption that what has become easy for the instructor should also be a piece of cake for the students.

I have been teaching college biology for many years. When I get up a head of steam in front of the classroom, the terminology rolls off my tongue like the recitation of a prepared speech: "Leeches of the order Rhynchobdellida have a sucking pharynx proboscis, which should not be confused with the feeding apparatus of the Nemertea, which comprises a proboscis leading into a rhynchodaeum."

Then I pause to look out over the sea of blank faces.

"Do you understand?" I ask, eager to move on.

There are almost never any questions, much less objections, so I continue, "And as for the order Arhynchobdellida.... "

What I have done, of course, is interpret my students' silence as evidence that they were with me every step of the way. It is usually in the quiet moments of the lecture's aftermath that the occasional lost soul darkens the threshold of my office, wanting to know just exactly what I was talking about in class.

Such queries almost always serve to bring me back to center, as I assume that the one mystified student speaks for several more who didn't have the time or courage to come to me and ask for clarification.

In any case, I invite the intrepid questioner to have a seat and we review the material together, in measured steps.

Ah, how easy it is for me, the teacher, to forget recent history! Just yesterday I was that student seated in a large lecture hall, shifting about in a plastic seat, watching my cohorts scribble away and concluding that every one of them was a genius while I was the blockhead.

I still recall, in my very first college course, botany, straining to make sense of what Professor Catovic was talking about.

So many words! Such foreign-sounding terms!

I finally steeled myself and leaned over to the anonymous student sitting next to me and asked, "Did he say 'chlorophyll' or 'chloroplast'?" Whereupon that student, mildly annoyed, whispered back, "Chlorophyll!"

See? A genius! Seated right next to me.

Another pitfall of pedagogy is the conclusion that one is really smart, simply because one has developed fluency in a topic one has been teaching for years.

The quickest way to disabuse oneself of such an arrogant notion is to take a course in a subject totally unrelated to one's own.

I did exactly that a few weeks back when I registered for a course at a local tech school called "Basic Electricity and Home Wiring."

Electricity has always been a black box to me. I have had to call electricians for even the simplest wiring jobs, all because I equated electricity with mysticism or quantum physics.

I would watch in wonder as the electrician pulled bouquets of wires out of walls, held blinking probes over outlets, and threw switches.

I tried to learn by asking questions, but the answers always sounded too complicated, coded, beyond my ability to comprehend.

When I took my seat with a dozen other students in the electricity course, I felt that here, at last, I would learn and understand and be able to do more than change my own light bulbs.

But within the first hour I was lost. Amps, volts! Loads! Red wires, black wires! What was a biologist to do?

The teacher was a professional electrician who had been on the job a very long time. He didn't quite understand that what was transparent to him was as clear as mud to me, the student.

What could I do? As a first step, I sat quietly and smiled, for here it was, confronting me in spades, that old familiar threatening sense of not being able to do well, of assuming that I was a dunce among prodigies.

To make a long story short, I stuck with it and finally, just the other day, wired a light. When the instructor threw the switch - the moment of truth - I savored the same thrill Thomas Edison must have felt when he first illuminated Manhattan.

And yet I am humbled, because I have much to learn. But I am getting there.

My becoming a student again has illuminated more than a 60-watt bulb. It has thrown renewed light upon the importance of bearing in mind that - despite my command of the subject matter - my students are facing biology for the first time, and I must therefore handle them with care.

"Not too glib," I tell myself as I return to my biology class the day after my first, tentative wiring job. "Not too fast. And when they say that they have no questions, accept this as proof that I have gotten ahead of them. Then go through the material again, slowly, and with your finger on the pulse of their comprehension."

It's never too late to learn.

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