Are you a teacher? Have you taught before? Did you teach in Liberia, Africa or in the United States? If you were a teacher in the great United States, you probably have been asked, not once not twice, not thrice, but many times about your philosophy of teaching. Initially, when I heard people asking others about their teaching philosophy, I would hold my chin in wonderment.
Later when I joined the teaching profession, I had to answer this question; not once, not twice, not thrice, but many times. In fact, I became so accustomed to being asked this question, that I probably had an “elevator ride” response waiting to dish out. An “elevator ride” chat or response is a ‘one minute’ concise response used to grasp the attention of someone or sell an idea.
The “elevator” pitch or chat is definitely not something I developed. No, no! It is a strategy I learned from the Founder and then Director of [New York] Columbia’s University Human Rights and Advocacy Training Program, Dr. Paul Martin. Dr. Paul Martin, a human rights advocate, a teacher and lecturer would look directly in my eyes and say with his typical American intonation, ‘‘Musue, imagine that you walked to an elevator and meet someone who’s also ready to get on the elevator. The person will be stopping on the 2nd floor, which will take approximately a minute. That means you have just one minute to chat with this person; and that one minute to get the person interested in your idea or your project?”
When Dr. Martin gave me that exercise, I had to really sit and do my homework. The homework didn’t take a day, or two. Frankly, it took me weeks. I couldn’t stop asking myself, ‘How do I condense Human Rights situations in Liberia and West Africa to a one minute pitch, but yet keep it captivating to grasp the attention of human rights groups, and international stake holders?’ Truly, that was an enormously whopping assignment. Many days I would stand before a mirror and practice for hours- trying to get the idea, the flow, and the jargons.
I must admit that I failed many times, and found myself running back to my desk to edit, rewrite and then vice versa. If this exercise went on for weeks at home, you can imagine how many times I stood before the mirror, and the number of times I found myself running back and forth in my room like a lone soccer player.
However, after completing about 60% of that ‘elevator ride’ selling pitch, I walked into Dr. Martin’s office and demonstrated what I had prepared. A practical teacher, Dr. Martin didn’t take a pen or pencil, neither did he take a chalk; but he stood there and said again, “That is good, but you can make it better Musue.” I asked him, “How?” Dr, Martin asked me to look at the various human rights challenges in Liberia and West Africa.
We started verbally listing some of what were then the most horrendous crimes and human rights violations, including the September 18, 1998 incident, the killings of Samuel Dokie and his family, the “disappearance” of Nowai Flomo, the incarnation of political persons, including Charles Breeze, Gbai Ballah, among others. The discussion also included the implications of these things on the West African sub-region. Let me add that this discussion was taking place in 2000, and therefore did not include cllr Taiwan Goggle’s or Hassan Bility’s and other incidents that occurred after early 2000, but the skills learned from Dr. Martin and other staff at Columbia University were instrumental in helping me contribute to drawing international attention to subsequent violations including Gongloe’s, Hassan Bility’s the imprisonment of The News Newspaper editorial staff, among others.
On the day on the brainstorming exercise, I quite remember that day: Dr. Paul Martin asked me questions rather than provide answers. Whatever responses I provided, he didn’t critically assess my responses. Rather, he asked additional questions. He also told me, “Let me hear your thoughts,” adding, “Think aloud.” My responses and thoughts led to more and more questions. When I prepared to leave Dr. Paul Martin’s office, he was still seated on his computer desk calmly, and with a thin smile on his face. I turned around and ask, “Dr. Martin, why are you so tolerant, and patient with me. I have taken up a lot of your time.” Dr. Martin moved his hands from the key board, and said, “That is why I am here. I know you can do it Musue. The next time you are in class, or you come into my office, you will have the elevator ride selling pitch.” I felt truly motivated by his response supported by his expression
A day later, I sat in Dr. Paul Martin’s class. Surprisingly, I was quiet, and for my classmates, and colleagues, and even my teachers, that was “far from typical.” At the end of the class, as usual, students gathered around Dr. Martin and other staff. As we walked out, I asked Dr. Martin, “Why did you decide to get into human rights teaching?” Dr. Martin’s response was illustrative, catchy, but concise. When I asked that question, little did I know that one day, I would also be asked similar question.
While I may not be standing before a classroom, I consider myself a public educator. When I taught, that’s when I stood before a classroom, and even today, when asked about my teaching philosophy, I think about the path that leads me to teaching. That’s simply because, my philosophy of teaching is closely tied to my educational experience, occurrences in the real world, and my world, and who I am. Throughout the years I met effective teachers who pushed me to go beyond what I believed I was capable of doing and achieving. Also, I met teachers and other persons who made assumptions of what I was not capable of doing based on who they believed I was. However, I learned from both situations. The teachers who believed in me and others who doubted my capability – they helped shaped my teaching philosophy.
As I reflect on teaching and learning and teachers, I think about a few educational theories, including Abraham Maslow theory of Human Motivation. “The fact is that people are good, if only their fundamental wishes are satisfied, their wish for affection and security. Give people affection and security, and they will give affection and be secure in their feelings and their behavior.” [Maslow, Abraham]. When I read this quote by Abraham Maslow, it reinforced my belief that each and every child has the potential to bring something unique and special to the world. This concept is and remains the foundation of my education philosophy – both for the classroom, and in my public education undertakings.
As a teacher and an educator, I reflect on Maslow’s quote and his notion of a hierarchy of needs: deficiency needs that people must meet in order to move on to growth needs that are never met, but rather expanded with experiences. I believe that a teacher should consider the needs of students, realizing that though deficiency needs is at the bottom of the pyramid, it provides the foundation for the growth needs of students. I have implicit belief that learning and motivation are interdependent, and the first step in guiding students and people in discovering who they are, and helping them develop their potentials.
While there are divergent views on Maslow’s theory, I believe that students do learn better and participate more when their basic needs are met, or understood. To breakdown this concept, ask yourself, “Is it possible to teach a child or someone who’s hungry, cold, ill, disappointed or homeless?” If even as a teacher or educator, you cannot provide the student, or person, or people food on a daily basis, if you show genuine empathy to the student, or person, that compassion or understanding might motivate the child or person to come to school, participate, and learn. The student will say to others or to themselves: My teacher understands, or my teacher is with me. Teaching is not a job; it is a responsibility that requires some forms of relationship. For me, a teacher is one who is respectful, understanding, approachable, and supportive. The way I interact with students and people demonstrate my respect for them.
For example, I never say anything derogatory to my students or people I interact with. I do not attempt to use my students or others (or any of their work) to demonstrate poor example. I illustrate understanding by listening to their needs, even if I am unable to comply or supply those needs. The reason for my outlook is obvious, when a child or person feels safe and comfortable, and motivated, I can then begin to assist or motivate that student to discover their strengths, and help them build on their weaknesses. When a student feels that he is understood, he or she can feel comfortable and motivated to express their own opinions and nurture their own ideas, they can become relax and lighten up to their environment.
Aside Maslow’s theory, there is also another universal theory – The use of Multiple Intelligences theory, which also draws on the motivation of students’ talents, thus helping teachers construct self-motivating educational experiences. Through creating educational experiences based on natural talents and gifts, I realize that I can increase the opportunities whereby students can become actively engaged in learning experiences that are interesting and responsive and motivational. The practicality of this theory is that “all human beings have strengths in certain areas, and that or those strength(s) can be used to motivate learning and in teaching certain skills.
Imagine that you had the opportunity to teach the late American Musician Michael Jackson or the late Liberian musical star Tecumsey Roberts a mathematical skill. Which intelligence would you opt to use in teaching the musical star: would you use the Logical-mathematical intelligence or Musical intelligence? Of course, Roberts talents as a musician would make it easier to teach him math using his musical intelligence. On the other hand, it may take you forever to teach singers MaYatta Zoe, Fatu Gayflor or Zaye Tete reading skills by using their Naturalistic intelligence. It doesn’t take a scientist to know that though the singers possessed some Naturalistic intelligence, which has to do with classifying natural forms such as animal and plant species and rocks and mountain types; and the applied knowledge of nature in farming, mining, etc. but their strength lies in their musical (intelligences) skills.
Therefore, to motivate learning, using their Musical intelligence (using reading notes to teach them songs, or asking them to use reading materials to write songs, and dance rhythms) would not only suffice, but proved successful. Using the naturalist intelligence would be motivational for those who have demonstrated interest in farming, gardeners, agriculture and related areas.
It is therefore important to note that the use of Multiple Intelligences also draws on the motivation of students’ talents, thus helping teachers construct self-motivating educational experiences. Through creating educational experiences based on natural talents and gifts, I realized that I can increase the opportunities whereby students can become actively engaged in learning experiences that are interesting and responsive and motivational. Over the years, I also learned that every (school and public) classroom presents a unique community of learners that varies not only in abilities, but also in learning styles. That is why, I find Howard Gardner’s theory that each individual manifests varying levels of different intelligences, and thus each person has a unique “cognitive profile.” The use of the “cognitive profile” proved successful when I worked as a classroom teacher, and it has become relevant in my public education activities.
In order to be effective, each teacher must recognize that their role must include giving students the tools with which to cultivate their own area of knowledge. To accomplish this goal, I teach to the needs and intelligences of each child so that all learners can feel capable and successful. I present instructions that will include the interests of the students, and make learning relevant to life. I incorporate themes, projects, group work, individual work, and hands-on learning in order to make students active learners. In showing my students how to become responsible for their own learning, I am giving them the tools to become successful in life, to believe in themselves, and to love themselves, and to encourage creativity.
Real World Connection
Making real life and real world connection is also another important component of teaching and learning. Linking learning to activities and events in the world community has proven to help students become caring and active members of society. My vision in teaching and learning is to create an environment- whether in the classroom or a public arena – where we can learn to embrace our differences as the core of what makes life so interesting, make each person feel important and make a positive difference in the life of others. It has been established that education and information are ways for people to be empowered with the ability to accomplish things, and to contribute meaningfully to society. Personally, lifelong learning, and teaching have provided me the opportunity for continual learning and growth.
After many years, I sit back and reflect on Dr. Paul Martin’s response to my question that cold day in the year 2000, when I asked him, “Why did you decide to get into [human rights] teaching?” As I look back, I can proudly say, “Dr. Paul Martin made a positive difference in my life.” Not only did he use the Multiple Intelligences theory, he also used Maslow’s and a series of other theories in teaching and empowering his students, including me to find our strengths; he and his energetic staff at SIPA building guided us on various ways to use our skills and knowledge to promote our work, and our societies. Most importantly, Dr. Martin built a relationship with each of his students, and made each feel exceptionally special to their home countries, to Columbia University campus, and to the world around them. His encouragement remains alive in me, and it is that positive touch that I endeavor to share with others in my teaching and learning; it is an intrinsic part of my teaching philosophy.
About the author: Musue N. Haddad is a Liberian Journalist/Photo-Journalist. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University, and has worked both at home and outside of Liberia. She received several national and international awards for her journalistic practices and human rights work, including the Nelson Mandela Award for “Best Student in Photo-Journalism,” Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for “outstanding dedication and service towards the recognition, promotion and protection of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” and Human Rights Watch Hellmann-Hammett Award, granted to writers around the world who have been the targets of political persecution. In 1998/1999, she received the Press Union of Liberia “Journalist of the Year” and ‘”Photo-Journalist of the Year” awards.