When Teaching Gets In The Way of Learning

As a teacher, teaching often gets in the way of my learning. Here’s how.

The twelve year old young man prepared for weeks for this. He thought about the spelling bee all day. At around two o’clock the time arrived for the yearly middle school spelling bee and he was ready.

For a reason teachers could not figure out, unlike years past this year students filled every desk in the room. The winner of the spelling bee would go on to represent the school at the district wide spelling bee.

Everyone spelled her/his word correctly in the first round. That first round had easy to spell words but subsequent rounds would become tougher. Right when students settled down a bit the second round arrived. Some students started to miss words raising the level of anxiety in the room. The ousted students remained in the room sitting slouched in their desks relieved that this pressure packed situation had at last passed. 

By the third round only six students remained and pressure reved up. I don’t really recall round three’s exact words but I remember they were multisyllabic words nobody heard of before or since with definitions not even the teachers who judged the spelling bee knew. Each student wore worry on her/his face but one student among them showed excessive signs of anxiety. The nerves engulfed him causing him to be unaware of his actions. He mouthed the spelling of each word when it was not his turn. If other contestants read his lips, which they did not because their attention was consumed with trying to spell the words for themselves, they’d know how to spell the word.

He was the first to go in round three. The teacher stated the word, the part of speech, and read the word in a sentence. This meant everything to him. At the moment he heard the word his breathing became more shallow, his face flushed, and his eyes teared up. It was obvious he did not know how to spell the word. In a hurky jerky reactive manner he said with a shaky voice, “Will you repeat the definition, please?” while gnawing at his nails. After the teacher repeated the definition the young man asked, “Will, will, you, uh, uh, please repeat the pronunciation slowly, please, please?” I did not know why he wanted to win so badly then and it is still hard for me to even guess now. But, what I do know is he wanted to win. He did his best to spell the word. When he completed the spelling, the reader used a motherly tone to say, “Oh, no, I’m sorry that is not the correct spelling of the word.” He misspelled his word.

All of the other five misspelled their words too. He did not know they misspelled their words because after he misspelled his word and before anyone could say anything to stop him, he had gathered his belongings and left the room to return to his science class. The door slammed. The teachers looks around at each other shrugged then continued on. Like the others who’d misspelled a word we wanted him to stay. I hopped up from my chair and ran to get the young man from his class he had returned to after racing out of the room dejected.

Once I found him he was pacing back and forth and was mouthing something to himself. “Young man,” I said, “All of the other students have misspelled their words. Please come back. You still can win this contest.” His eyes lit up and he raced back to the spelling bee’s location. On our way back I put my arm around him to teach him a valuable lesson, “Young man, you must never lose hope. You still has a chance to win this.”

After spelling a few more words correctly, he prevailed as the spelling bee winner. 

As a teacher, I felt I needed to teach him something about that moment. But, he taught me. It has taken many years to reflect on the fact that my teaching can block my learning. I should have learned from the young man to care, to care without restraint. I learned to care enough about my work that it shows in my expressions, gestures, and speech. How others perceive my care for my work is their business, not mine. The longer I teach I learn to step back from teaching to learn a little something.

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