Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Student Becomes The Teacher

“Teach your children well […]
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.”

- “Teach Your Children” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young

I have wanted to write a post about teachers for a long time; about the fact that some of the best lessons learned in life are those that occur outside of the classroom. But it wasn’t until these last few days, when I was sitting in GSI (graduate student instructor) training seminars and workshops, when I, the student, literally became the teacher that I was finally able to understand – everything that happens in life, both good and bad, has something to teach us, both about ourselves and about the greater world in which we live.

When I finally received a diagnosis for my various chronic conditions, one of my friends told me that I would end up doing something truly great because (or in spite) of my illnesses; that I would use them to empower, rather than to hinder, the things that I do in my life. I really did not believe this person at first. I thought, for the most part that my life was over. How could I possibly glean energy and enthusiasm from an aspect of my life that seemed to be challenging me to my very core, exhausting me at every turn, and sucking (what felt like) the life out of me? As time has gone on, and I have reached out to others like me, I know it won’t be easy, but I will persevere.

And honestly, I think for many of us with chronic illnesses, life lessons are very real. They do not come from a worksheet or words written on a chalkboard, but rather, they are the things that we learn in living with, adapting to, and coping with chronic illness. Almost nothing you learn in school (save being a psychologist or social worker) can prepare you for being diagnosed with any type of ailment that significantly alters your life.

And I think, as teachers, what we expect from our students and what our students expect from us, is similar to what we, as patients, expect from our doctors. (I’m oversimplifying here, but…) As teachers, we expect our students to engage in the subject matter, to be respectful, to do their work, and to come to us with questions and concerns. As students, we expect our teachers to give clear explanations of material, to be up to date and knowledgeable on their subject, and to get to know us, not just as students, but also as people.

As patients, we want our doctors to be passionate and well-versed in their field, we want them to respect us and treat us as people, rather than simply as patients, we want them to be clear with the medical information they give us, and to be willing to answer questions and address any concerns that we may have.

See the parallel?

For me, a good teacher is someone who encourages me, fills me with hope, instills a love of learning, and believes in me to achieve whatever I set my mind to. I realize now that very few teachers I ever had fulfilled all of these criteria. But the important thing is that they fulfilled one of them. They are only human. And so are our doctors. Sometimes we forget that.

It’s also important to understand that like the teacher-student relationship, the doctor-patient relationship is a reciprocal one. In both relationships, each person will, even inadvertently, at some time or another, play the part of the student and the teacher. Just as we have much to learn from our doctors, they have much to learn from us (and I mean that in a human sense, not an experimental one).

Most in academia will agree that being a student is a life-long pursuit. Gaining knowledge and understanding of the world is an ever-evolving process. So too, is dealing with chronic illness. I have learned, rather quickly, that the journey from diagnosis to acceptance can be quite long and painful. And that the pattern of “accept” and “regret” will vacillate, possibly on a daily basis. But I have also learned that with the right tools, I can live a productive and fulfilling life, even amidst the constant cloud of chronic illness.

There have been a lot of things that have shaped my identity and the person that I am today. Throughout my life, teachers have shaped how I think about myself and the world around me.

Similarly, in a very short time, my chronic illnesses have taught me a lot about myself. They have taught me what kind of person I want to be, what I need and expect from others, and how these two (sometimes opposing) forces work in tandem to shape my life.

What I hope to teach my students (and my chronic illnesses) is that I am a forced to be reckoned with. I have a power and authority deep inside of me that is waiting to be unleashed, and once done so, will be unstoppable.

As I begin my journey as a teacher, I bring with me all of the lessons I have learned and identities that have become a part of me throughout my life. My life as a student and my work life, now as a teacher, become one. We all take on many different roles in life, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from those roles all the time (even when we aren’t in them).

My chronic illnesses have given me an inner strength that I do not think was in me before. I feel better able to face the world because I know (most of the time) that there are more important things than deadlines, papers, and exams, and that while my profession is important, my health has to come first (something I am still learning).

Thinking of the doctor-patient relationship as similar to and emulating the teacher-student relationship obviously brings up issues of power and authority. But this comparison also emphasizes the reciprocal nature of the relationship – teachers give knowledge to their students, and students give knowledge to their teachers; doctors provide knowledge and understanding to their patients; patients provide knowledge and understanding to their doctors.

For patients, doctors, teachers, and students, maybe we can apply this thinking and build better relationships with those that are a large part of our lives, but that we often take for granted.


  1. Like the connection here--I do think these two different relationships share similarities and depend on being engaged and having mutual respect and understanding.

    Good luck teaching--I started in grad school and had never really considered it a long-term thing..till I fell in love with it.