The Art of Teaching and Learning

Wizards and Sorcerers – Part I

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

Answer quickly and without pausing… “Who were your most admired teachers from kindergarten through college?” Bet that some of you responded without hesitation.

Names most likely emerged instantaneously with a soft smile to affirm reasons why. You just know and have known their names most of your life. Maybe not when the reasons were actually happening, but because of time. You just know and always will!

As an educator for some 45 years, I often ponder that question, just to see if the answer remains the same – and it does. My names quickly surface simultaneously affirming the reasons. The only difference is that the reasons now have more meaning, astute awareness and significant fondness.

You see, the ones I remember, not only taught me content, but they constantly reinforced what we are inherently born with – that inalienable passion, curiosity and desperate need to inquire and know. They did not ask us to embrace a subject matter but our pursuit of knowledge and its wonders. For them, learning was not tied to any one department or content area but a charismatic style that was to them as instinctive as breathing. For them the moment was not about what, but more about the if, when, how, who, where and why.

They were not wo/men who were only regimented authority figures demanding attention because of titles or because they stood in front of a room or spoke with megaphones. They were different from the first day of school to the last. Their syllabus did not create fear nor doubt but promoted expeditions. They were excited about the journey, seemingly inspired and could not wait to get started. They shared an energy as soon as they entered the teaching<>learning space – a space we would learn to venerate by our mutual presence. This was not her/his space but ours – a safe space where questions were promoted and urged, with more than one answer considered, “Listen, listen! Did all of you hear the question? Please ask it again! Listen, listen what an incredible question! – Now let’s see if we can answer it?” and we listened to it again… and we answered it with a barrage of possibilities.

Their classrooms were not brick and mortar but temples. Every inch covered with a plethora of curiosities – mysteries waiting to be discovered, a riddle or two, invitations to pause and wonder. The images were not tokens to impress a visiting principal or parent(s) (put up in September, taken down in June.) But the learning space was an extension of what was important for us to constantly think about – our world, our environment, our citizenship, each other. They created islands of learning.

Posters, quotes, pieces of art, music, learning spaces were ever available. Not for decoration, but to pause and reflect on meaning and their connections to our inner self and each other. We saw faces that mirrored each of us – not just some. You may think that what I have just describe must be an elementary school teacher. You would be wrong.

I was one of those fortunate human beings who had the privilege – the honor of having encounters with wizards-sorcerers throughout my life. The first one was as an immigrant being discovered in a Special Education class. She was an English teacher who knew that my special need was to learn English. She was not part of the Special Ed department. She became my life-long shero. The next three were in high school, one as an undergrad college student and two in graduate school.  Wow! seven wizards – rivaling Harry Potter!

As an immigrant second language acquirer my learning faced daunting realities. That I survived those years and that I became an educator seems unimaginable. Consider that in the 1950s throughout the 1970s second language acquirers were deemed to be illiterate because they could not comprehend, speak, read or write in English. It was an easy and comfortable way to label, expedite and process immigrants into schools. Give them a test that they will fail and place them in Special Ed.

During those years, America was going through a forced catharsis dealing with the unrest of civil/social justice and rights. Cities were burning. Europe, the Soviet Union and UN were bashing America for its self-righteous hypocrisy heralding its declaration of independence, its constitution, its bill of rights, while people of color suffered inequalities and suppression. US athletes of color were winning gold medals on international stages, marketed on boxes of Wheaties as heroes. Upon coming home, they were not welcomed nor invited to buy a cup of coffee in some “privileged” dinners or rent an apartment on the “right side of town.”

With all of that going on, second language acquires and their parents, were not even a minor priority – neither were their rights – at least not yet. They would have to fend for themselves. But fending was not an unknown commodity or ability for immigrants. “Ganas” (will), relentless resiliency would address survival – it always had and would.