Classroom Perspectives

Teaching the Teacher: Material

Teaching the Teacher: Material

By Cameron Conaway

Many times in our life we think, “close, but not enough.” When we are in the best physical condition of our lives, we want a little more muscle. When we are financially stable, we want just a little more money. Even our own skin isn’t exempt; there are tanning beds to bronze our skin and whitening creams to lighten our complexion. This prefaces one of two things. First, the obvious: material objects matter greatly to us. It’s not just about cars and houses and jewellery, but even our skin, the material that houses us. Second: we treat the knowledge contained within our brains as though it’s material. We want what others know, then, once we “have” that, we want to know the things they do not.

At times, we may be stubborn and prideful in defending what we think we know, especially when it relates to the material we’re paid to teach. The lesson here is simple. The things we “do not know” may not always come from those wiser or more experienced. What we want isn’t always what we imagine, nor does it come from where we assume. What we need is an open mind.

There’s so much knowledge we want to obtain that the thought of knowing so little in a world so large can overwhelm us. Although we have access to millions of websites on every topic we may feel that we don’t know quite enough. Then the day finally comes when we complete our formal education. We become graduates of graduate school. In a world so large, we think to ourselves, at least I am a master of this small bit of material. Well, that is not quite true. There will be times when ten-year-old students teach us something we thought we knew inside and out. One student may misinterpret our math lesson and stumble upon a new way to remember the rules of division. Another may bring a fresh and insightful interpretation to a passage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, something we simply had not entertained before. When it comes to a wardrobe, an upgrade may be unnecessary, but upgrading our knowledge base, even if it means replacing what we thought we knew with a sharper idea from a student, is critical to our continued success as educators.

Future articles in this series will address some of the ways the lessons our students teach us can renew our vigor for teaching. We’ll examine how these lessons can stay with us long after we leave the classroom. For now, take the first step. Enter the classroom in the manner of the poet William Blake—believing that children were born innocent and that their innocence often has more to teach the experienced than the experienced has to teach them.

What have your students taught you about the subject you teach?

Cameron Conaway was an instructor for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth and was the 2007-2009 Poet-in-Residence at the University of Arizona’s MFA Creative Writing Program. The residency allowed him to spend two years teaching in diverse environments throughout Arizona – from the Tohono O’odham Native American Reservation to lower income high schools, from University Honors classes to juvenile detention centers. His book, Until You Make the Shore (Jan 2012, Salmon Poetry) grew out of his experiences teaching inside the Pima County Juvenile Detention Center in Tucson, Arizona. He is currently studying Muay Thai kickboxing in Thailand thanks to the sponsorship of To ask Cameron questions or to join his team, connect with him on Facebook or Twitter.

Also in the Teaching the Teacher Series:









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