The teaching profession, while not the oldest, has been around for quite a while. Socrates and Plato were at it back in the fourth century BC.
Plato believed, above all else, in the power of reason and a life of self-mastery. Socrates, Plato’s idol, invented the art of teaching by questioning.
Ask the right questions, he insisted, and truth will triumph.
Last Thursday, my student teacher, who is on loan from a nearby university and who will be in my classroom until next June, reported for duty as usual and handed me a plain brown envelope filled with half-a-tree’s worth of forms and letters. All written in Educanese, a language I have never mastered.
Right away, I think of Socrates and begin questioning the blond child who someday soon will be aswim in her own sea of institutional excesses. “What am I supposed to do with this stuff?”
She just grins knowingly, having watched me in action for three weeks. “File it?” she asks, employing her own Socratic method with a sly raising of one eyebrow and a glance at the trash can. I am sorely tempted, I’ll admit, but Platonic reason and images of self-mastery trip me up. I open the envelope.
On top is a three-page letter explaining in great detail what is expected of me as a leader of impressionable undergraduates. A two-page schedule of things to do and when to do them follows, backed up by reams of fill-in-the-blank and multiple-choice stuff.
“Good grief!” An exclamation, I confess, more “Peanuts” than Socratic.
Determination to do the right thing for my student teacher prods me into reading the first page of the letter. I ask, “What is this ‘Co-Operating Teacher’s Handbook’ they keep referring to?” She tells me it’s that two-inch thick “green thing” she gave me at our first meeting back in the summer. My not-too-surprising response: “What green thing?”
The search is on. From the outset I suspect it’s hopeless, but I’m thinking this child’s future is in my careless hands. As I dig through “In” baskets, “Out” baskets, and a few “I don’t know where else to put this junk” drawers, Platonic admonitions of reason and self-mastery carom around in my head.
There is no trace of the “green thing” upon which two careers may rest. Reason dictates I ask: “Have you by any chance read the ‘green thing’ and committed major portions of it to memory?” She chuckles. We’re sunk. It’s time for a new approach.
“Sit down here beside my desk and hear my confession,” the newly chastened me insists. She kindly complies.
It’s time for some ugly truth. “The office hates me. My paperwork is a mess and when I do turn it in, it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. I have lost my copies of the eligibility list, the master schedule (with personal notations), and the teachers’ handbook. I have no idea when class photos are scheduled nor do I know when the next faculty meeting takes place. My master textbook list was misfiled in 1992, and I’m not sure when it’s my turn to monitor the bus queues. Is it possible,” I ask, “that you have been sent to me for some sort of shock indoctrination? Are there any dark secrets in your undergraduate record? Could anybody be out to get you?”
My cohort breaks into girlish giggles. In an attempt to steer this chat onto a more serious level, I explain about Plato and Socrates and their search for reason and self-mastery.
“Those guys had some good ideas, Ms. Schuett,” she agrees, “but did they have to deal with lunch counts and attendance? Did they have to investigate complaints of computers eating essays or operate on jammed printers? Were they expected to punch hall passes and decorate bulletin boards?” I admit it’s tough to picture Plato with a hole punch.
“Did they grade eighty-plus essays a week?”
This kid’s okay, I’m thinking. She’ll go far.
Back to the Socratic method. “If you were that ‘green thing’,” I ask, “where do you think you might be?”
“Well,” she says with a knowing smile, “maybe I’d be over there on the bookcase in your ‘Things To Do Today’ basket. Under the bananas.”