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Why Teach? One Person's Perspective

By J. Blake Carpenter

“Serving others is the greatest privilege in life.” These words are not attributable to any of the known philosophers of antiquity. Aristotle never wrote them; Seneca never recorded them; and Socrates never spoke them. These are the words my father spoke to me as a young child, and he continues to speak them today. He never wrote them down for posterity, but his philosophy is no less profound. His parchment is his life, which is recorded daily and read by those around him. It is this philosophy, a philosophy of service, which shaped and continues to shape my life and my love: teaching.

The first step in teaching, I believe, is to let the student know you appreciate him/her. This is a lesson I learned early in life. Whenever I spoke to someone my father always made me say, “I appreciate you.” It was not until much later that I saw the inherent wisdom in this simple statement. Most things in life depreciate in value. People, however, continually appreciate, or increase in value. I try to remember this every day. I am most appreciative of the students who fill my classroom. Because of them, I have a job, a roof over my head, a car to drive, food to eat, and clothes to wear. I also appreciate them for making my life interesting, challenging, and rewarding.

The second step is to gain the student’s trust. People, by nature, do not trust. Trust must be earned both for the teacher and the student. Until the students know how much I care about them, they really are not interested in how much I know. I spend the first several weeks of a semester on trial for my trustworthiness. Once they know I genuinely care about them and their learning, we bond and form a team. We succeed and move forward together, making sure everyone performs to his/her best ability.

The third step is to make service to the student the teacher’s top priority. As my father stated, service is the greatest privilege we have. Full of potential, a classroom is filled with future doctors, lawyers, politicians, construction workers, salesmen, etc. As an instructor, I have the opportunity to participate in the dreams and endeavors of my students. I am making an investment that I believe will result in great returns for society. It is then, therefore, incumbent upon me to make sure I serve my students to the best of my ability and that I do so on a daily basis.

The fourth step for an instructor is to demand and expect excellence from him/herself and the student. If a teacher does not set the highest standards for his/her performance in the classroom, then the student has no incentive to perform to his/her highest level of achievement. Excellence comes when the instructor is willing to try new means of challenging the student and inspiring the student to stretch beyond the ordinary to attain the extraordinary. This means the teacher must sometimes let go of tradition in order to embrace new and exciting possibilities that lend themselves to instruction.

All four steps of this process must be repeated daily. Students need to know we appreciate them, that we trust them, that we serve them, and that we demand excellence from them. The student’s response and performance will be in direct proportion to the instructor’s dedication to this simple philosophy. Teaching must become a lifestyle, a raison d’être. As an instructor I have the privilege and the opportunity to invest in my students. Were I to invest in the stock market, I would check the market daily to ensure I was making wise decisions. At the first sign of difficulty, I would make the necessary adjustments to my portfolio to guarantee the best return on my money. Should it be any different in the classroom? My portfolio is the students I teach, and I must do everything I can on a daily basis to make sure society reaps the greatest return from its investment.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that serving others through teaching is my greatest privilege. The classroom gives me the opportunity to work with wonderful people who have a direction and a goal for themselves. What a privilege and honor it is to play a small role in the individuals they will become. Much like a farmer who prepares his fields in the spring, I am cultivating the minds of young people. My job is to plant seeds, to tend them while they are under my care, and to ensure they have the best possible environment in which to flourish. It is my hope that I successfully adhere to my father’s philosophy and that my life will be one of service to my students and to others. Voltaire’s Candide suggests, “Let us tend our own garden.” In that spirit, I believe that by carefully tending to the students in my charge, I am investing in the harvest yet to come – a harvest that will yield far more than I have contributed to it.

Blake Carpenter has taught French at UT Arlington and is now Coordinator of the Finish@UTProgram, Division of Digital Teaching and Learning.