I. The Short Writing
The “Winter” Essay
It was the winter of 2006, in the month of January, and my junior year of high school. By this time in high school I’d had some quirky teachers and to be honest Mr. DeBruyn didn’t seem so uniquely special but apparently he had his moments. English class began on a day when it seemed like school should have been cancelled due to the blizzardous weather earlier that morning. Mr. DeBruyn had an auspicious look on his face then says, “We’re doing an in class writing assignment today but it’s not going to be in class”.
The whole class paused and waited for his next sentence. He told everyone to go to our lockers and get prepared to go outside. Everyone protested and all he could say is “you have three minutes, dress warm”, as if we wouldn’t! Back in the classroom we grabbed our notebooks as best we could with our gloves, scarves, hats, and puffy winter coats to hold us back.
The assignment was to write about nature, as usual, but this time from a first hand experience. We were to pick a certain aspect of what we say outside and discuss how the snow and winter weather affected it, whether it be a plant, bush, tree, or whatever. Once outside everyone was shivering and freezing trying to slap down notes as fast as possible. Mr. DeBruyn then pulled out a digital camera and took a picture of the spot each student examined. Back inside everyone rushed to finish an essay of their choppy notes. I’d hoped it wasn’t worth much of our grade.
A few months went by and he hadn’t mentioned anything about the assignment, nor gave it back to us. It was April now. He returned the assignment and no one scored higher than a ‘B’, which was expected. He then gave us each a copy of the area we studied, from the pictures he had taken, and sent us back outside to re-examine the same spot. We were told to re-write the assignment and now descriptively compare the two images and had the weather conditions made the images vary.
Mr. DeBruyn turned out not to be so bad, in fact he was kind of cool. I liked that he had challenged us in unique ways, and apparently so did everyone else. Turns out, his creative teaching style touched the hearts of a lot of students, not just me. As proof, he was voted as the teacher to speak at our graduation. And that is no small honor. The privilege of addressing the graduating class at their commencement exercises is a direct testament to to how much the teachers is loved and appreciated by the class. The teacher chosen, therefore, is the one who has the most positive impact on the entire class. And I most certainly agree that Mr. DeBruyn has been an inspiration, and I will never look at winter the same way again.
II. Analyzing the Narrative
The story of Mr. DeBruyn is a compelling piece of narrative, very simple in its use of words, but highly poignant and raw with emotions. The use of simple words and straightforward imagery makes the material accessible to everyone. However, while simple and highly accessible, the piece is equally provocative, engaging the reader in philosophical musings, while reading the piece and afterwards. Teachers and students alike will find lessons in the simple story of Mr. DeBruyn and the lessons about life that he imparts to his students.
The most striking theme in the essay is the concept of education being practice by the teacher, Mr. DeBruyn. John Dewey, the great educational philosopher, once said that there is no better context for learning than the context of real life. Sadly, most classes offer pure theories without any exposure on how such theories find practical form in the real life. In particular, Dewey’s ideas on using real-life tasks and challenges find great significance in my class with Mr. DeBruyn. The opportunities he provided the class to experience real life is truly one lesson that everyone in that class will never forget.
Teaching is perhaps one of the most meaningful of all professions because every day you are given the chance to make meaningful and lasting contribution to an individual’s life. In fact the No Child Left Behind Act recognizes the singular power of teachers in the learning process; so much so that the bar has been raised for teachers in the hopes of improving the educational system. I believe that a big part of the decline in education is that most teachers have lost pride in their vocation. Teachers must have a sense of dignity of work. Unfortunately, when the work is hard and the money is tight, that is easily forgotten. As such, there is an urgent need for reforms, and the community should take an active role in making teachers feel more valued through active support and acknowledgement.
By the single act of capturing winter and seeing the image compared with another season, the class became more aware of their surroundings and became more appreciative of the world around them. In one singular stroke of genius, Mr. DeBruyn was able to rekindle our sense of wonder and discovery, things which are at the very heart of learning, and is essential for every student and teacher to have, regardless of whatever subject is being taught or learned.
Of course, of utmost importance is what I have learned from this class. If there is one thing that I will carry from my experience with Mr. DeBruyn, it is that you have to let your students take the lead. As a teacher you have to be very sensitive to the signals that your students are sending you individually and collectively as a class. Learners will always give you signs whether you are doing the right thing or not. You have to be ready for contingencies and be prepared to make on the spot adjustments. Let them tell you how they want to learn, because they know what they need from their teacher. I have learned to look at things from all possible levels and adopt my thinking from those perspectives.
If I become a teacher, I should never impose myself on them; instead let them teach me how they want to be taught. This is an important realization that I will always keep in mind should I decide to enter the teaching vocation. Indeed while it is true that students need to feel that someone is in control and responsible for their environment and sets classroom limits but maintains them (Wong, 2001), it is more important for teachers to let the minds of the students soar in wonder and discovery. Of course it deserves to be mentioned that the things I have learned from Mr. DeBruyn goes beyond the classroom; more than teaching a lesson, Mr. DeBruyn taught us about life.
Much has been said about the nobility of the teaching profession, and indeed, the high sense of duty and the self-sacrifices required from a teacher on a daily basis is nothing less than heroic. I see this first hand in the story of DeBruyn’s class. From this very simple essay I have realized that educational reforms do not necessarily need to cost anything. Indeed, Mr. DeBruyn has shown that it does not take too much time or money to effect a change inside the classroom.
As what Mr. DeBruyn has shown, all that is needed is the passion for teaching and genuine desire to share in the learning experience. It is not difficult, and all that is needed to go back to the basics. In the educational process, all teachers must be reminded that the learning process starts with what the child knows. Prior learning is the framework where new concepts are built upon. As such, every teacher should begin with the previous lesson and connect it to the new material. Let the child see the relationship and build their own concepts. This way the child earns ownership of what he has learned because it was a result of what he already knows.
These are the things I have been able to reflect upon, and it has had a profound effect in me as an individual looking her place in the sun. From firsthand experience, I have witnessed the power of the teacher to make meaningful and lasting contribution to the lives of students. Indeed the teacher is the single biggest factor that determines the success or failure of the students to learn what they should. I have realized that it is the teacher who creates the atmosphere that focuses the class on their tasks and keeps them engaged in the lessons. Indeed, every moment is an opportunity to learn, and the teacher must create that opportunity for the students. (Mujis, 2005, 75)
Reading Mr. DeBruyn I have realized that Mr. Paul Trout of The Chronicle Review would be very pleased by his story. Mr. Trout, in her article entitled Shame on You, takes a critical look at education and forwards the idea that the more the classrooms are threats to the students morale and well-being. While Mr. Trout’s arguments may be valid, Mr. DeBruyn flies in the face of Mr. Trout’s thesis. There can be redemption and life-changing inspiration within the four halls of the classroom. The negative view of the teachers and the school, while not unfounded, is not always true. Across the country, teachers are making a difference in the lives of students, one kind word and encouragement at a time.
According to Paul Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993), “A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrating Subject (the teacher) and patient listening objects (the students).” This description of Friere depicts a one-way relationship between students and teachers, and as such, the transfer of knowledge occurs when the teacher narrates or uses words to teach. But words, while extremely powerful and effective at initiating change is not the only tool at a teacher’s disposal. Actual experiences go beyond any words to properly describe. Mr. DeBruyn proved this by immersing his class in authentic experiences, which did not need much explaining. It was an exchange of knowledge that took place in the heart.
I think that the philosophy that comes closest to Mr. DeBruyn’s teaching style is the one espoused by Ms. Rachel Toor. In her article, It’s Mr. Orwell to You, she promoted a teacher-student relationship that was informal. Not informal in the sense that the students treat teachers without any respect. Rather, students approach the learning system with intimacy. They view a piece of literature as someone written by a real person, and as such, is someone they can very well relate to. By “humanizing” lessons, the students become less intimidated, are able to relax their mind and be open to more learning.
Indeed, education is a complex issue that is fraught with difficulties. But no other profession is more fulfilling. To the individual who has the calling to teach. Pursue it with a heart open to all kinds of possibilities. It will not be easy, not by a long shot. But remember that a meaningful life is always fraught with sacrifices. But at the end of the day, the fulfillment is something that you cannot get anywhere else. And that alone is the reason that keeps true teachers inside the classroom each and every day.