The Ultimate Gift for a Teacher is...

This is an article I originally wrote at for a "best gifts for teachers" sort-of-competition-thingy back in the day. Squidoo was a nice site for creating written content and earning a bit of money from it.

The site is now dead and was assimilated by, which is slowly declining in traffic just like EzineArticles.

I think I still agree with most of what I shared in said article, so here you go. Enjoy! :D

Some time ago, when this article was a Squidoo lens, I received on my Squidoo Quest Panel a quest aimed to all Lensmasters who have top lenses in the Education category. It read as follows:

"As a top Lensmaster in the Education category, we think you know what the best gift for a teacher might be. Share your best teacher's gift idea on a new lens! Ideas might include something especially for the teacher, a gift for their classroom or anything else you think would be the perfect gift for a teacher. "

Challenge accepted.

What you will find on this page will surprise you... specially if you are a teacher. If you expect this Squidoo lens to be a shopping list mentioning textbooks, markers, erasers, coffee, reams of paper, pens, pencils, calculators and MOAR coffee ... then you will be disappointed.

The thing is that what I think is the ultimate gift for a teacher is not something you can buy on eBay, Amazon or your local mall. It is not something you can buy at all, actually. And it's something nobody can give you. This gift is a gift that only you, as a teacher, can decide to give to yourself.

What is it then?



The ultimate gift you can give to yourself is making the decision to...

Evolve from a teacher into a mentor.

Please, keep on reading to see what the heck I'm talking about.

What is a Teacher?

Whether you teach in school or college, what do you do as a teacher? How is your daily work routine? What is your job about, exactly?

My guess is that you either prepare lectures with the class textbook as a basis, or maybe you just follow pre-planned lectures included in such textbook. I also guess that each day you stand in front of a medium-to-big-to-huge classroom, where you then proceed to speak out your lecture and use the whiteboard behind you or slides as an aid.

Few of your students will be paying attention to you. Some are falling asleep. Some others are doodling, or reading something else, or checking their Facebook on their smartphones, or chewing bubble gum... or plain gazing into the infinite. You try to make them pay attention by asking them questions individually, or by asking them to go in front of the whiteboard and solve a problem you've written on there.

During your lecture a minority of your students will interrupt the class by raising their hand and ask questions like "Can I go to the bathroom?", or "Teacher excuse me... will that be on the test?", or in rare instances, a couple of your students might actually ask about the topic at hand.

Once the lecture is over, even fewer students will stop you to ask you to clear things they didn't understand in the lecture. These are students that take the class seriously... in the sense of not failing any test or project. These same students will probably ask you to please meet with you later in the day, or some other day so you can help them clear even more stuff they don't understand... so that they can do well on the tests.

During class you assign activities like silent reading or individual/group exercises to be handed at the end. For the next classes you assign homework and projects. And of course, you create and do tests. And once your students complete all of these activities comes your favorite activity in your job... Scoring!!

Ohhhh yeah baby, nothing like huge stacks of paper on your office desk after the final exams and end projects in your class(es) are over. Time to prepare a big bucket of coffee, because those 57 exams are not going to get scored by themselves! Well, maybe a tutor under your command can help you with the scoring, if that's how your school/college rolls...

In a nutshell that's what you do as a teacher. You walk in front of a whiteboard and you teach. You pack a bunch of students that have to learn what you are teaching, and then proceed to teach 'em. You assign them work so they learn what they have to learn, and you help them along the way by answering questions or holding some private sessions... so they can learn what they have to learn.

You gradually measure your student's capacity to do work and pass tests using either letters or numbers. At the end of the cycle, if your students have a high enough main number or letter, they shall go their merry way to start another cycle with another teacher (or maybe you too), so they can keep on learning what they have to learn.

And those who don't make it? Well, they got to repeat the same cycle all over again... leading not only to waste time (and money), but to stand humiliation and punishment from their guardians.

That's more or less what being a teacher is about... right? That's the system: You teach your students, assigned by your school/college, what they have to learn, and you get paid a not-so-bad salary for doing so. That's what teachers do. Teachers teach! (DUHR ORLY???)



Seems legit, right?


Wait. I think there is something we missed...

The thing is, you are providing a service, which is teaching. But... who exactly are you benefiting with your service? Who's life is better because of the service you are providing?

"Well duh, my students!! Man, why are you such a slowpoke??!!"

... really? The following applies to you the most if you are teaching at school.

Tell me this: Was it the decision of your students to take your class?

Was it their decision to be in your class? Was it their decision to know about what you teach?

Or are they taking your class... against their will?

Are your Students actually Learning?

If you operate in school, your students are taking your class against their will. They couldn't care less about calculus or poetry or physics or chemistry or music or history or whatever you happen to teach. They are taking your class only because their guardians/parents make them; because they have to, not because they actually want to. And sure, you might have some kid in your class that shows interest in the topics you work, but his/her enthusiasm is quickly demolished by the pressures of getting good grades.

Your students don't care about your subject. And I mean, WHY in the world should they? Interest in a subject is an entirely subjective and personal matter. It doesn't happen because you, his/her parents and society says he/she "should" learn math and history and other subjects that to him/her are useless at the moment. True interest cannot be coerced, but that's what school is all about: coercion.

All these young folks care about is to get the annoying school work done as quickly as possible so they can have good enough grades so they can then get the school crap out of the way and finally dedicate their precious time to activities they actually enjoy doing... like playing videogames, hanging out with their friends, reading books of their own choosing and interest, and even engage in personal projects like creating electronic music or learning a language or building weird contraptions or practicing their favorite sport... whatever it is that they chose to do.

And you know... that's how it should be. Your students are not just lazy slobs that should take interest in your subject... that's not how actual learning works in the real world, and you know it. By now you've forgotten everything you learned in school that is not related to your current career. People set to learn about something when they have curiosity, or passion or a real need they need to fulfill. And all these aspects come from within, from an internal desire and motivation, NOT from external coercion.

Learning can only happen when YOU decide that you want/need to learn something; that is a process that requires NO external obligation. If they decide to learn something it should be their will and decision to do it.

However, school is not modeled like this. Instead we oblige kids and young people to go to a schooling facility every weekday so teachers can ram unsolicited lectures, homework and projects down their throats. We make kids study hard for their projects and tests...

But once all those tests are over they forget most (frequently all?) of what they have crammed. And once they finally have some free time, they use it to do stuff they are actually interested in. Sure, most spend their time drowning in entertainment, but some others get to learn about stuff they are actually curious and interested about. With no coercion. On their own. In their own terms.

Kids and young people go to school only to socialize a bit and to study... they don't go to school to actually learn. Learning can only happen when YOU decide to do it.

Dear teacher, let me ask you then: Do you want your students to cram about what you teach, or you want them to actually learn about what you teach?

Do you realize that you cannot force other people to learn about what you teach, just because a stupid system like schools forces both of you to get together in a useless ritual of lecturing and testing, right? From all of those kids in your classroom, maybe ONE wants to actually learn about what you teach. Maybe...

If that's the case... if the others just don't care, and they have no reason to care, and it's not fair that you (or society) coerce them into caring... but there is ONE person in the whole room that cares and is actually curious...

... then why the hell waste so much time and space? Why not connect with this one kid directly? No classroom, no structured lectures, a schedule both of you can agree with. You, him/her and your knowledge and desire to help him/her understand whatever you happen to master.

Wouldn't that be better? Wouldn't you be making a much bigger impact if you just connected directly with those kids that have an actual interest in what you teach? Why waste time trying to teach to dozens of kids that just don't care? You and your students are wasting time doing this. This is unfair for you and for all those kids. Is it a comfortable salary really worth wasting so much of your potential, and the time of all those youngsters and teens?

Think about it...

What about College Students?

So yes, we have that in school teachers are forced to teach to students that simply don't want to be there, which makes the whole process an incredible waste of time for both parties, and a massive waste of potential for you, the teacher. But what about college students? They are taking classes with you because they actually want AND need to learn about what you know. And that's good... but...

If you are a college professor, could you explain to me why the heck do you do live lectures? Why on earth do you have a set schedule where a huge amount of students enter a classroom, listen to your lecture all at the same time, and interrupt the whole damn thing if one of them has a question? Why the heck do you need all your students to be there at the same time?!

You see, if all you want is to deliver a lecture you can either record a video of yourself doing the lecture and share it online with all your students, or share with them a video of the same lesson recorded by some other teacher. That way they can learn about what you teach at any time after you share it.

Day or night, it doesn't matter. Through video (and audio) your students can rewind and fast-forward each lesson as much as they please, something that is impossible in a live lecture. This helps students learn at their own schedule and at their own pace.

And what if they have questions about said lecture? Well, they have many other resources they can use to clear their doubts on their own, like the class textbook(s), several forums and Q&A sites on the net, consulting with their peers or an assigned tutor, and if everything else fails they could just book a meeting with you, where you could work with you one-on-one, or in very small groups, particular issues they are not understanding well.

We all know that people learn in different ways, at a different pace and in different times of the day. Giving college students more freedom and autonomy to learn is better than forcing a set schedule and mandatory assistance to live lectures. The thing is... the whole notion of live lectures is mostly obsolete; what can be done on a live lecture can (in most instances) be recorded and shared on video.

Tests shouldn't be mandatory either. Tests should be asked by students, just like you would ask a doctor for a medial exam, so that you can know if you have any health issues you didn't know about.

Except maybe for a Master Skills Test they would have to execute in order to receive their diploma, tests during their entire careers should be entirely optional. This means that you as a teacher would have to create more personalized tests, sure. But such tests would be less frequent anyways, and thus you wouldn't have to waste so much time scoring so many tests!

This are just some ideas, and I know they are not going to be implemented in the world of colleges any time soon, but... all I want is to make you think about what truly matters in being a teacher, which is connecting with people that actually want to learn, and help them do so.

College and universities are awesome because of the sheer amount of resources they have, but they set up a bunch of fireloops and stupid rules and strict systems into place that force the entire university concept to become more of a cram fest instead of an actual learning experience.

From Teacher to Mentor

Having a salary is definitely comfortable and feels secure, but... let me ask you this:

If teaching is what you do, if teaching is your passion in life... then, shouldn't you be working to your full potential? Shouldn't you be teaching and working with people that actually want to learn about what you know, and actually want to listen to you, instead of trying to catch the attention of a bunch of obliged students that just couldn't care less about what you are saying?

The thing is that working in a school reduces you to be a master for your student slaves, not a true teacher. You only present facts and lessons to later order your students to complete exercises and take tests... but actual learning is disregarded. They just don't care, and there is no reason for them to care. In such case you are, literally, getting paid for wasting your time and your students' time.

You could do a much bigger impact with your work if you were working in a coercion-free environment, like a Montessori school or something similar. In such a place your job is not to ram lessons down kids' throats, but to be a source of inspiration and knowledge. Each kid and youngster is free to learn about what they truly want to learn. You can suggest topics they might want to learn about, but you would never oblige them to "learn" about it. You would be much more than a teacher; you would be more like a coach.

You would be a mentor.

As for college, mass live lectures are obsolete. First, knowledge is much more easily accessible now days thanks to resources like libraries, the Internet and databases. Students should do most of their learning on their own, but whenever they need your direct help, then it is much more effective to work with each student one-on-one, or in very small groups. Being a mentor and focusing on the issues and progress of each individual separately makes the learning process faster and more effective.

In both instances, students are the ones who should ask their mentors to test them. And the scores of these tests shouldn't be a reason to "repeat a whole class" or something that goes on a permanent record and stains your academic life forever. Tests should be like medical exams: you don't get a medical exam made to pass it, but to see how your health is in that moment.

Testing should be just a tool to help the student see where she has the most difficulties so she can work harder on them, without pressure of "You failed this class, you failure!! You pay more! You get humiliated by your guardians! You repeat the class, you failure!!"

If teaching is your passion, changing your mindset from teacher to mentor is, in my very humble opinion, the best gift you could ever give to yourself.

I understand that maybe you are working in a school, your family depends of your salary and you cannot just quit to become an independent mentor/tutor. However, that doesn't mean you cannot use some of your free time to start doing some mentoring/tutoring gigs with people that actually want to learn about what you master.

If you teach in college you might have enough freedom to try being as "mentorish" as you can, but the strict curriculum you and your class have to follow along with the testing demands makes it very difficult. In this situation what I would recommend is that you encourage your students to learn the most they can by themselves and just use the classtime to answer questions, instead of doing a live lecture about a topic they could've read about in their textbooks anyways.

College should work differently to how it currently operates. Students shouldn't have to follow a strict curriculum, and they shouldn't be tested if they don't want to. An ultimate test+thesis at the end of their studies might be needed, but besides that, students should be the ones that ask their mentors for tests. Students should be allowed to learn at their own pace and use all college resources freely, for as long as they keep on paying a monthly/yearly membership. College should allow for much more freedom in learning...

... but until then, you can choose to become a mentor instead of just a teacher. You cannot force learning into anybody; the desire to learn comes from within. You may inspire, but not force. Thus, spend as much time as you can connecting with people that actually want to learn, instead of just settling for teaching to students that don't even want to be in your presence.

Evolving into a mentor is the ultimate gift for a teacher.

Will you give it to yourself? Here are some resources you can check to see how you can get started in this journey!

Extra Resources

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