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What is teaching for me? When I read about stories of great teachers who handle the class in amazingly innovative ways and inspire their students even in the presence of dire circumstances, I tend to believe that probably teaching is about that: making extraordinary events take place. But my daily dealing with lesson planning, endless grading, administrative handling, meetings and more meetings make me realize that inspirational teaching is what I may need to deal with the day to day. However, far from being disappointed by the circumstances of being an "average" teacher, I am happy to realize that it is the work of "ordinary" people the one that makes a difference. Do not get me wrong. The magnificent work of extraordinary teachers is a source of inspiration for present and future generations. And I am not underestimating myself or the work that I do. On the contrary, the silent work of dedicated but not so grand teachers keep the art of education going. Another aspect that certainly troubled me for years, especially as an incipient teacher, was the sense of vocation. I believed that teachers had to have a particular calling. With the years, I discovered that that vocation could be developed with the passing of time. So, far from the highest spheres of grandiosity and the ethereal and even mystical hearing of a calling, I have come to realize that I have developed a vocational loving for a profession that can certainly make a difference in the life of those that we are meant to serve.
Why do I state that I have developed a vocation? Is not a vocation a particular calling? Well, thinking back on my first years as a teacher, I had lots of fears: of not fulfilling students' expectations, of not doing my job well, of not being able to transmit knowledge, and many more circumstantial elements that are part of being a novice. Under such circumstances, I had to grow. And teaching gave me the real-world knowledge that I needed to grow as a teacher. This sounds like circular reasoning, but let me explain: Every lesson that I taught, taught me a lesson. Every student that I had an impact on, had an impact on me. Every course that I prepared for the students, I prepared it for me too. Every piece of knowledge that I transmitted, was transmitted back to me. In that constant interaction with teaching, I became a teacher. Disappointed because you do not find here laudatory descriptions of inspirational lessons? You should not be. A lifetime is comprised of little things just like a teaching career is full of small details.
The second point that I need to emphasize is the notion that teaching makes a difference. I already stated how it has changed me. Yet, it also changes those who are exposed to one's teaching. Looking back, I fondly remember all the moments in which I interacted with my primary school students. As part of the social dimension of education, I was given the opportunity to direct an outreach program to stimulate reading through ludic activities. Playing and teaching go hand in hand, especially with children. And this kind of social work, besides its rewarding personal benefits, was of invaluable worth for my development as a teacher. It helped me understand the potential that children have to develop their creativity and flexible thinking through games and reading. It also gave those children tools to expand their potential and be able to deal with life in more creative and flexible ways. Times change, students' needs change, and the social needs vary too. As part of a more global world and the need to be more competitive in it, I saw the need to develop a different kind of outreach program (programs which are, by the way, an intrinsic mission of the University of Costa Rica) to help primary school children develop English skills. For this program, with the help of an interdisciplinary group of university students (English majors, Graphic Arts majors, Education students and Communications students), we designed material to help inner city school teachers develop their classes with more effective tools. Even though this was a more "utilitarian" project, the essence of developing interesting, appealing, and fun materials for teaching was there. The effect of providing materials to schools that lacked them was essentially a positive and motivational factor for many students and teachers alike. New times require new forms of teaching and in developing my vocation, I had to learn about new technologies. That led me to work on a research project in which we developed a digital platform for the teaching of English in secondary education. Besides social work, research is certainly a second guiding principle for every university professor. These activities have had some kind of impact on those involved, including me. And they have helped me evolve as a teacher.
The third guiding principle of the University of Costa Rica is teaching. Here I go back to the initial question: what is teaching? At the end of the introduction to this paper I hinted at one of the aspects of teaching: service. Undoubtedly we give students and society in general a service. In this kind of service, teachers become promoters of change by providing everybody willing to learn the chance to be part of the domain of knowledge. Education is an inclusive establishment, promoter of the common good, an essential tool of civic formation, and a source of cultivation of the person as a whole. But it is essentially a process. A process that once blended with content creates a critical vision of the world by exposing students to variety, diversity, different world views, different ways of expression, different ways of being human. One single course and one single teacher can have lasting effects on particular students, but it is in the whole process of education that those values aforementioned are realized.
So, what makes good teachers? First, their dedication to their students. In providing this service, we should not lose sight of the invaluable worth of each and every one of those who come to our class, even of those children, adolescents, young adults, or even adults who at times refuse to learn from you. Teachers and their dedication can make a change in their outlook of education, and of life in general. Second, love for learning. Being surrounded by books, learning from them, updating one's knowledge, all these activities help one become a better professional. Finally, for good teaching to take place, it should go unnoticed. Paradoxically as it may sound, the most unobtrusive one's presence is in the classroom, the better and the more smoothly the class goes (especially in the teaching of foreign languages). In the class, one is a facilitator of learning; the one that students can count on for clarification, guidance, help, and interaction.
I like the idea of a teacher as an architect: the one who visualizes the final finished product, and has an aesthetic vision of the results. But we are not alone in this work. There are many others who contribute in the elaboration of this final vision: teachers whose basic sense of hope leads them on their daily labor and prompts them to go to the classroom and teach to the best of their knowledge and aptitude, who want to make a difference in the life of the students and who expect them to grow as citizens, professionals, but especially as human beings. It is in the humble but dedicated work of teachers that we realize the vision of a better society.