If you are a teacher, you won’t be surprised about just how much teachers learn from their students.

I have the privilege of teaching a freshman writing class to young artists at NYU called “The World Through Art” and an advanced film culture and criticism class called “Anatomy of Difference: The Other in Film”- both for the department of Art and Public Policy AKA Arts Politics.

I have deep respect for the work of teaching and feel the responsibility intensely. I get a bit nervous for the first few classes of each semester, thinking about the best way to enthuse my students about the subjects at hand. I spend an inordinate amount of time on my syllabus before the semester begins and then adjust week-to-week depending on how my students respond to the material.

My first exposure to the classroom was quite different from the classroom I lead today. I first understood it as a place where students come to learn from a teacher – although still quite true, it is no longer the one-way communication route I first experienced. What is not discussed often enough is the fact that teachers also learn from their students and from the experience of teaching and more importantly the exchanges that take place in the space. Apparently this is not a new idea and musician Phil Collins says it this way – “In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

So what exactly can teachers learn in the classroom?  Well I’m sure it is different for each person, and depends on the type of class being taught and the specific discipline, but overall you learn to be a better teacher. Reading and taking in what students produce and write in their course evaluations offers the best information on how to improve the class. It should be apparent during class time whether or not you are presenting the information effectively, but if you missed the signs, the evaluations will no doubt enlighten you. More importantly however is the education you get about the changing world and how your students experience it. You learn to listen more carefully to questions and comments, and how to respond to questions that represent an ever-changing view of your field.

When I first started teaching with a freshly minted PhD I used the expected lingo and soon realized I was not getting the desired effect and realized I was repeating most of what I said, rewording it of course. Eventually I got to the point where I had a different appreciation for this quote by Albert Einstein – “If you cant’ explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

The greatest teaching reward in the classroom these days is “diversity” and topics can range from race in America to multiculturalism, from politics to gender identity and so on.  The point is that there are many different experiences and points of view in the modern classroom.  I am fortunate enough to teach in a department where differences are not only recognized but celebrated.

To get more specific, here are a few of the things I’ve learned over the years. Granted I teach in an art school but most of these are relevant to all disciplines.

  • Ask students what name they prefer to be called. Don’t just go by their official name on the class roster.
  • Ask students how they would like to be referred to. Its not just he and she anymore. Get educated.
  • Never, NEVER assume race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. Never…
  • Examine your own historical and cultural references and get to know theirs. You may have to change some of your examples to be more effective.
  • Get to know your institutions internal conversations on diversity and difference and find out where your students go to have those discussions. If you can’t have the conversation yourself at least you know where to refer them.
  • Pay close attention to things in the media that affect students and engage it where appropriate. Get to know their hashtags.
  • It’s ok to not have all the answers to everything all the time.
  • Remember that you are modeling something for your students, not just a way to approach the material. Be aware of what that is. Own it and be willing to change it if you need to.

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak on a panel that was co-sponsored by our school’s Center for Multicultural Education and Programs and a new student group called RAAD – Radical Artists Aiming for Diversity.  The title of the conversation was “From Selma to #Damonsplaining” and when the student leader met with me to make a formal invitation she asked if I knew what #Damonsplaining was.

I was thrilled to respond – yes I do…