Why I Teach

Why I Teach

Headshot, smiling Caucasian male, white hair, 60's-70's

Thomas Ehrlich is author of 14 books including, most recently, Civic Work Civic Lessons: Two Generations Reflect on Public Service, written with Ernestine Fu, a Stanford student.  Now a visiting professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, he previously served as dean of Stanford Law School, provost of the University of Pennsylvania, and president of Indiana University, as well as in the administrations of five U.S. presidents.

Why I Teach

For me, the 'teaching seed' was planted when I was in second grade. I was in love with my teacher, Mrs. Scattergood, so much so that one day I called my mother “Mrs. Scattergood.”  My mother was not pleased, but she later claimed that at that moment she knew I would someday be a teacher.

When I was fifteen, I told my grandmother that I was going to become a law teacher. Here's how that happened. She was in her 80’s, and starting when I was about twelve,  I often had lunch with her at the Braemore Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, where she lived.  At the end of every lunch, she would give me a new book to read and discuss at our next lunch. The book I remember best was a biography of Louis Brandeis, the famous jurist. When I read about how he grappled with the ills of society, I announced to my grandmother that I would teach law someday.

In 1965, I finally kept my word when I came to teach at Stanford Law School.  Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea how to shift from the role of student to teacher. The School offered no guidance, apparently expecting me to know by osmosis how to teach. Because I had loved the “Contracts Law” course I took as a law student, I offered to teach that subject. I also wanted to teach “International Law,” though I had never taken a course in that subject at Harvard Law School.  But I came to Stanford with a suitcase full of materials from three years working as a lawyer in the State Department and had the brass to believe I could fashion a course on international law from those materials.  Throughout that first year, I felt only a half-step ahead of my students, but then I joined forces with Harvard Professor Abram Chayes, who had been my law-school teacher and whom I had worked for in Washington.  Together we fashioned a new approach to teaching international law, one that focused on the ways that international law is created, using real issues we had wrestled with, such as legal basis for a quarantine of Cuba during the Missile Crisis.  Chayes was a great teacher, and I learned from him the art of the Socratic exchange (later famously caricatured by Scott Turow in “One L”).

Teaching Contracts Law was a difficult learning experience for me. Because I had done well as a law student, I found it hard to understand the bottlenecks that made learning difficult for the law students who struggled, as most of them did.  To gain a sense of myself as a teacher, I asked a Law School staff member to videotape my classes for two weeks. When I watched those videos, I was horrified.  I looked as stiff and as nervous as I felt. I started holding informal brown-bag lunch sessions with any students who wanted to join me, with the express aim of making me a better teacher while they became better learners of contract law.  And things did get better—for the students and for me.  From this embarrassing realization of my own inadequacies, I learned an important lesson about teaching: Most students want their teachers to succeed, perhaps almost as much as they want to be successful students themselves.

In later years as an academic administrator at Penn and Indiana, I taught one course every year and began working hard to understand how students learn and how good teachers teach. I was inspired by The Scholarship of Teaching, by Ernest Boyer, then head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  Ironically, that’s where I worked starting in 1999, after a five-year stint teaching community-service learning courses at San Francisco State.

Today I am teaching about teaching and learning, trying to pull together what I have learned---and continue to learn.  Recalling how Stanford Law School just assumed--incorrectly--that I knew how to teach, I have developed (with lots of help) a course at the Stanford Graduate School of Education to assist those who will end up in higher-education classrooms and administrative offices understand the essence of their enterprise, teaching.

I love teaching this class because it offers everything I missed when I started teaching (and what most new college and university faculty lack as well).  Like me, my graduate students have been observing teachers most of their lives, which often gives them a false sense that, because they know what teachers do, they will be able to step in front of a classroom and be successful.  Some seem to have been ‘brainwashed’ by senior professors to believe that scholarship and research should trump teaching.   The course I teach, which includes students from across the university in many disciplines, seeks to overturn those false notions.  My students then become apprentice teachers in a safe environment that allows them to fail, an experience which, I hope, helps set them on the way to successful careers in teaching.

This article originally appeared in the Learning Matters website on July 25, 2013.

What do you think of Tom's story?  Why and how do you teach?