Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Teachable Moments

I lived next to an elementary school teacher who had an amazing collection of t-shirts and coffee mugs presumably given to her by students. I would join my neighbor for a cup of coffee and out of her kitchen cabinet would tumble bright cups with saying like “You can’t scare me, I teach 6th grade,” “Teachers do it with Class”, and “Cutie π”.

I was recently reminded of one of her t-shirts which said “To Teach is to Touch the Future.” That’s rather a grand saying, but the recent Cal Aggie Alumni Awards dinner was wonderful evidence that those of us who educate really have an opportunity to shape lives in profound ways.

I know faculty don’t always think of long-term profundity as we try to construct meaningful tests or coming up with a good example to make a point. But this year’s six alumni awardees gave ample evidence that their time at UC Davis had a deep effect on them. These effects spread through our society – and far beyond – in ways their teachers could never have imagined.

All six of the awardees were inspirational but I was especially moved by John Landers, recipient of the Emil M. Mrak International Award. John received a master’s degree in agriculture from UC Davis 44 years ago, in 1965, and has spent his long career in South America where he continues to have impact.

Under John’s leadership, Brazilians are embracing a zero tillage (ZT) soil conservation strategy that is preventing erosion and reducing greenhouse gases. Instead of upending the soil between plantings, seeds are sown directly into uncultivated ground with native grasses still in place. After harvest leftover plant materials such as stalks are left to compost and animals can graze between plantings. This is not only good for the environment, but ZT allows poor growers to succeed without resort to the financial risk of expensive tractors.

Last night I spoke to a group of our students and I wondered what they will do with their management skills. Our MBA students bring backgrounds and ideas garnered through an average of five years of work experience, so we are hardly reforming them in dramatic ways. We teach and provide valuable business skills to students who already know a great deal—they already have degrees, work experience, and well-formed understandings. I have, however, observed how a suggestion, an encouragement, or a reading assignment can open a possibility, build confidence, and reframe an opinion. As that pedagogical scholar Harry S. Truman once wrote: “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

I think I need a t-shirt.

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