Saturday, September 06, 2008


Shelley on Skylarks and Teaching

“Like a teacherpoet hidden

In the light of thought,

Singing hymnsSharing thoughts unbidden,

Till the world his scholars are is wrought

To sympathy with hopes and fears it they heeded not.”
-- Percy Bysshe Shelley, “To a Skylark”

With apologies to the poet, I changed some of his words in the above lines and came up with a helpful statement about teaching. I like the notion that a teacher should be “hidden in the light of thought”. As the years have passed, I have come to realize that the best teachers are those who are the most out of sight – the ones who have gone beyond the belief that teaching is about preaching, leading, or entertaining. These teachers understand that teaching and learning is far bigger than any single human being in front of a class of students, and therefore they work to make themselves, in a sense, "disappear" in order that the full universe of learning may appear to their students. You might say these teachers have hidden their personality in order that great truths can be revealed in the classroom. To use Shelley again, what’s important in good teaching is “the light of thought”, not the light of any particular teacher. It’s new universal ideas that we’re after in the classroom, not the private beliefs of a teacher. What Shelley loved about the skylark was not so much the individual bird but the beauty of the singing, just as what’s central to teaching is not the teacher but the thinking that goes on in the classroom. It’s interesting, too, that the poet says the bird’s songs were “unbidden”, and the same is true of a teacher’s thoughts. During class, I don’t “ask” for certain thoughts to appear in my mind; they simply appear -- suddenly, spontaneously, and unexpectedly. In that sense, the thoughts not really mine. They are given to me from some unfathomable source, the same source that supplies the skylark’s songs, and it is my duty to humbly accept them, and “sing” them in the classroom as clearly as possible. Skylarks and teachers disappear, but the music remains.

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