Teaching and history go hand in hand, I’ve decided. I’m not saying this to promote the view that history is the most important subject (which, I mean, it obviously is, no question there), or because I think all students should be history majors when they get to college (that would cause some problems in the world). I say this from the perspective of a historian turned teacher for a couple of years (the next two and a half years, to be exact).
During my meager three and a half weeks as a student teacher over the past month, I’ve had to remember what it was like to be in high school and think like a high schooler. All of this historical information makes so much sense to me as a senior history major. I can see the big picture of how the the Ottomans rose out of the ashes of the Abbasids, and how the Abbasid Golden Age (but was it really golden?) provided a framework for the European Renaissance. I can make comparisons across cultures and see the patterns throughout history. It all seems so elementary in my mind.
But than I notice when my students don’t get it. They didn’t see the same things in the primary source that I did. Did we even read the same text? Even if I say to them point blank, they still don’t get it sometimes. That’s when I have to think back to how I felt as a high schooler, particularly a freshman. I couldn’t see how the details fit together into a big picture. I didn’t have any schemata with which to organize all of these events. It was all a bunch of jumbled things that I had to memorize. It meant I got really good at memorizing, but I missed out on the big picture.
And this is where history and teaching go hand in hand. Historians have to see patterns. We have to see the big picture. Moreover, we have to be able to gather and evaluate evidence from primary sources. Normally, primary sources for historians are hundreds of years old (or at least decades). Historians have to try and recreate the past, to understand something that they are not immediately living in.
As a teacher, my primary sources are not hundreds of years old. They’re thirteen and fourteen years old and are still living and breathing. I was once a high schooler, but since then my mental capacity to make connections, analyze, and evaluate have increased immensely. It takes a lot of analysis to understand where my high schoolers are coming from. I have to look at what they produce to really get a picture of what goes on in the mind of the high schooler. I have to look for the same patterns in my high schoolers that I’ve looked for in history–but this time I have to evaluate them based on whether or not I need to reteach the material. I have to see the picture of their education for them while I’m teaching them history so they don’t miss out on it.