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Students as Teachers: Lessons Learned from the 2007 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award Winners

Students as Teachers: Lessons Learned from the 2007 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award Winners

Change Magazine

In the Platonic dialogue on Protagoras, Socrates relates an interesting story to his friend. Hippocrates wakes him early in the morning, asking that Socrates introduce him to Protagoras, who has recently arrived in town. Socrates replies, “It is your present intention to go to Protagoras and pay him money as a fee on your behalf. Now whom do you think you are going to, and what will he make of you?” At issue here is paideia, teaching or training for “mental culture.” When Hippocrates later asks Protagoras about his pedagogical goals, Protagoras responds, “Young man, if you come to me, your gain will be this. The very day you join me, you will go home a better man, and the same the next day. Each day you will make progress toward a better state.” Throughout the rest of the dialogue, Protagoras and Socrates debate the relation between wisdom and virtue and whether anyone can teach virtue. (For further discussion, see Janet Atwill’s “Rhetoric and Civic Virtue” in The Vitality of the Rhetorical Tradition).

In many ways, we are still debating the same issue. What is the purpose of a university education? When I teach a class, am I teaching a form of cultural virtue? Do I train citizens? I often start my 100- and 200-level classes with this story and ask my students whether they have come to the class to learn a skill or to become better people. They generally answer the same way: Reading and writing make them better people. I was very surprised when I first heard them respond overwhelmingly that, in fact, they expected me to teach a form of civic virtue that would persist throughout their lives. Although they may take a mercenary approach to credit accumulation, they apparently agree with Protagoras. They expect to go home in a “better state.”

This has always been my goal in teaching. I do not necessarily approach a class with virtue in mind, but I do employ liberatory pedagogies, and I believe that creating curiosity, instilling academic rigor, and encouraging diversity frees and enables students to exercise independent thought and expression.

My most challenging experiences in my four years teaching at the university level include teaching English courses to military personnel, tutoring Alaskan rural students in writing, working closely with university athletes, and teaching Women’s Studies courses in a conservative city. When I lived in Alaska, near an Army base and an Air Force post, I taught nine literature and composition courses, primarily to military personnel. I taught groups of soldiers and airpersons of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and class backgrounds, while negotiating the hetero-masculinist and sometimes racist military rhetoric that prevailed just after the beginning of the Iraq War. Making this even more difficult, these students represented a variety of military ranks and had been told not to interact informally or disagree publicly with those of a higher rank.

In working with Alaskan rural students, for whom university education often means breaking with their traditions, and with a group of student athletes who were mostly first-generation college students, I realized that culturally, much was at stake for these students in gaining a new academic perspective. Teaching Women’s Studies classes at the University of Tennessee means that I work with students who have never openly discussed equality in terms of gender and sexual orientation. I find myself drawn to these teaching situations, where the cultural stakes are high.
—Kasey Baker

I was able to develop my skills further as a teaching fellow for a graduate course in community organizing at the Kennedy School of Government with Marshall Ganz. After each class session, our teaching team had intensive, structured conversations about our development as teachers. We debriefed what went well and what could have gone differently. We pushed each other to articulate learning goals for the class and for each of our students. I learned to examine how I could have challenged or nurtured a student differently to facilitate more growth in his or her learning.

The feedback from Marshall and the team, as well as our shared reflections about pedagogy, informed my practice and strengthened my ability to integrate my experiences as an organizer with my approach to teaching. Most importantly, I realized that through teaching, I could make a contribution to the public good by fostering the civic leadership of young people.

At the heart of being an educator and organizer is my desire to build bridges between academic life and democratic practice.
—Margaret Post