Great teachers influenced my life. Each one showed me new ways to think for myself, opening my eyes to discover insights. That moment when I attained greater understanding or enlightenment astonished me and quickly became addicting. My mother, an expert in inspiring young minds to think critically, was my first instructor.
The woman whose classroom I shared as a student teacher had the greatest influence on me. Mrs. Robinson’s philosophy was sink or swim, leaving me to my own devices in the classroom. Later she used questioning to lead me through an analysis of that day’s classroom experience; evaluating what had worked and what clearly hadn’t. She never lectured me or directed me; she merely listened, reflected and asked more questions. Like my mother, Mrs. Robinson was an expert practitioner of the Socratic method.
As a new teacher, I desperately wanted to have that kind of influence on my students. I studied the Socratic Method and practiced my listening and questioning skills. Frustrated with my lack of progress, I often complained to Mrs. Robinson that I wasn’t sure I could master the technique. That’s when I discovered that the ability to stimulate critical thinking and illuminate ideas was more than just skill. It is also a gift.
On my last day of student teaching, Mrs. Robinson asked me to hold out my hand. As she placed a fragrant gardenia in my open palm, she instructed me to examine it closely.
“One day, when you are faced with negativity, naysayers and self-doubt about your value as a teacher remember this gardenia. Let it be a reminder that you do make a difference. And every day take time to reflect and find one moment that is your gardenia, that moment when a child’s thinking was transformed because of you.”
Mrs. Robinson elevated the act of teaching into an art form, beginning with true reflective listening. The gardenia became the symbol of the beautiful, noble purpose of teaching others; a reminder of the true influence a great teacher has on his or her students.
Although I haven’t been in an academic classroom for many years, the other day I heard an individual bemoan the fact that he hadn’t achieved his life’s purpose, how he had failed to make a difference. Then I remembered the gardenia and those who taught me the noble gift of enlightening others.