A teacher's story: Providing moments of discovery

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Jeff Danielian

As often happens when I find myself working outside on my deck, in the dry warm heat of the summer, with thunderous fireworks flashing, I become nostalgic and reminiscent in my writing. With the classroom door closed for a bit and my mind free to think about education, I thought I would share my own story.

I am often asked, as I am sure many of you are, “How did you become a teacher?” My response is never quite the same, and depending on how much time I have to discuss my winding road to the classroom, the story revolves around a simple phrase uttered over and over by a past mentor, a geology professor who still resides in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. It is a simple one, and I have it scribbled on a sheet of paper on the wall in my classroom: Education is not about information.

One lesson stands out for me. I will never forget looking down at an aerial view of the Grand Canyon through a pair of stereoscopic glasses. It is one of those moments that, upon reflection, strengthened my belief in the power of education.

Our professor gave a brief introduction to the principles of stereo photography, explained how to use the odd looking glasses, and proceeded to hand out materials. Within a few minutes, a series of “WOWs,” “WHOAs,” and “OHHHs” came from various areas of the cluttered geology lab/classroom. A classmate of mine lifted his head and looked at me with such a strong sense of wonder and amazement that I can still picture it today. He had seen it!

I must admit that it took me a little longer than others to see what all the fuss was about, but I assure you that when the image came into perspective and I found myself looking one mile down into a canyon I had never visited before, my exhilaration could have been heard in the halls. Thoughts immediately filled my head: Why had I never heard of this before? Are there other places to view? Can I take this home? Can we do this again?

Time stood still for those few moments. But soon the realization that I was not hovering above the Grand Canyon, but standing in a classroom, took hold when someone dropped something to the floor. As I glanced around, past all the bent heads, I saw my professor, who was simply smiling. It was to be a grin that I would come to know on many occasions in that class.

I often find myself waiting for reactions in a similar way. It may be the slides I have handed out illustrating cell division, or the re-growth of crystals under a hand lens. Perhaps it is viewing a photograph by Ansel Adams, or reading a sonnet from Shakespeare. Whatever the catalyst, one thing is always certain: After a few moments, when the audible excitement has died down, students begin to lift their heads and look at me. I know what they are thinking and so I smile.

I never intended to be a teacher. I never thought I would be so passionate about something I rebelled against for the first half of my life. I pursued communication and film studies during the start of my schooling but also found myself drawn to the field of science, due in large part to the professor mentioned above. He not only taught me about rocks, but also about education; its history, its evolution, and the mistakes that were being made concerning its implementation on a national scale. I had never honestly thought about education until I found myself hiking in the Nepal Himalaya, studying fault lines as part of a research team. An experience that wouldn’t have been possible without my moments of discovery.

As I traveled from village to village, I was met by curious children, and I always managed to find time at the end of a long and exhausting day to sit down with those who made their way to my campsite. With each new day came a different lesson to teach. I did my best to have the patience and understanding needed when one is unfamiliar with the native tongue. The experiences and understanding that came during those moments are enough to fill many pages, but as my journey came to a close, I realized the importance of teaching. I understood the power of education. Most of all, the experiences I have had since rounding those mountainous corners ten thousand miles away still echo with the words, “education is not about information.”

For me, education is about providing moments of discovery. As educators, we are constantly looking through a lens. We seek new and meaningful content for our classes. We try to offer the most enriching curriculum to our students. We hope that when they look to us with astonishment and wonder, we can smile back at them. We do our best.

Jeff Danielian is the director of the La Salle Scholars Program in Providence, Rhode Island, and the editor-in-chief of Teaching for High Potential.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.