Notes for Newcomers: Who’s Teaching Who?

By Phil La Borie

Notes for Newcomers: Who's Teaching Who?

“Give back what you’ve learned,
Share your experience.”
365 TAO, Daily Mediations*

I try to read a passage from the Tao Te Ching every morning. I find that it’s a wonderful way to get myself grounded and start my day off on the right foot. And now that I’m substitute teaching here in Horry County, I find that my daily readings and mediations are more fulfilling than ever.

How? Why? What gives me the chutzpah to even say so?

For starters, as a substitute teacher in Connecticut years ago and a volunteer working on several art projects with inner-city kids in that state, I figured I had some fairly serious grounding in teaching and dealing with young and somewhat rebellious students. So, when I first moved to the Grand Strand, I thought I could most probably walk on water in the South Carolina educational program.

Not so. Did I ever have mucho lessons to learn!

In point of fact, I’ve come to understand that the more l learn about teaching students, the more I realize that I really have a whole lot to learn about myself.

For instance, the ancient Taoist teachers and mediation masters often kept important knowledge to themselves in order to maintain their superiority over their students. In hindsight, it’s easy to say, “How foolish was that?” But truthfully, I think that was what I did initially. I certainly felt superior. After all, I was from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, right? Being a Connecticut Yankee and all, I obviously knew more about learning, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than southern kids did.

That silly behavior came to an abrupt end one day when a 3rd Grader said to me,

“Mr. Phil (I use that name in the classroom because trying to correctly pronounce my last name often leads to confusion), I’m not being disrespectful, and please don’t tell my teacher, but sometimes, you sound like a know-it-all.”

Wow! That put an end to my superior attitude in a hurry.

Then, in my need to be universally liked, I tried to befriend students, rather than just be friendly with them.

To my betterment as a teacher, I’ve discovered that there is a big difference between being blindly supportive of a misbehaving student, like a close friend might do, and becoming a thoughtful advocate when a student has made a good decision and a milder version of Judge Dread when a student has made a bad one.

All of which means listening carefully to what students have to say, not rushing to judgment, rewarding good behavior and sticking to your guns about disciplinary action when a student misbehaves.

Common sense, right? But then, I was always a slow learner.

Now when it comes to being totally and unabashedly appreciated, I have to admit that when a youngster from a class where I’ve appeared in the past rushes up to me and says, “Hi, Mr. Phil,” I’m very flattered and delighted.

And, it’s even better, when a student has an “Ah-Ha moment!” I’m just thrilled.

Here’s what happened: A 4th Grader in one of my classes was struggling with a math problem and came to me for help. I looked at the problem he was dealing with and realized that I hadn’t a clue about how to solve it. I was always terrible at math, and my learning disability now came home to roost in spades.

Now what?

I decided that rather than just throw up my hands and tell the student to ask one of his classmates for help, I reluctantly said,

“Let’s have a look at this together and see what we can learn.”

We discussed what the problem was asking us to solve and after what seemed like ages of attempting to roll Sisyphus’s Rock uphill, my soon-to-be the next Einstein blurted out,

“Oh, I see what to do!”

“OK, what’s the next step?” I asked.

I can’t say that a light bulb appeared over his head at that moment, but sure enough, he had figured out the solution and continued with the problem-solving. I was still sitting in semi-darkness.

As the year progresses, I’m finding out, often to my embarrassment on an almost daily basis, that there’s a whole lot more to learn about substitute teaching. I’ve become an avid student.

Case in point: After one of my classes had pledged allegiance to the flag, I asked them if anyone knew why we placed our right hand over our heart when we recited the pledge and where the custom originated. The class was all ears.

BTW: In case you didn’t know, or may have forgotten, the custom dates back to ancient times. Since swords were mainly held in the right hand, placing that hand over your heart demonstrated that you were empty-handed and loyal to your liege.

On the other hand, when I proudly told a class that I had taught my Italian grandmother to read English (she became a big fan of my 5th Grade “Days and Deeds” reader), my heart-felt recitation fell on deaf ears.

Lesson learned: Be relevant to what students are interested in and what they can relate to. My Italian grandmother, while a wonderful person, bless her heart, was just not of interest to my students. Now, if I’d enquired about what their grandmothers had taught them, we might have had an interesting dialogue.

Finally, I came across a small sign describing a day in a classroom that read:

…And your mind is packed with memories of kids who changed your life.

So true. I’m learning a lot from my students; hopefully they’re learning a little something from me.

In that regard, I now try to use another Taoist passage in my daily dealings with students, administrators and everyone else whose path I cross.

The great Tao flows everywhere,

It fulfills its purpose silently and makes no claim.

It does not show greatness,

And is therefore truly great.

Amen to that.

* Deng Ming-Dao, HarperCollins, New York, (c) 1992

About this writer

  • Phil La Borie Phil La Borie is an award-winning writer/artist based in Garden City, South Carolina. His work has been published in AdWeek, The Kaiser-Permanente Journal, Westworld Magazine and online at Phil is the 2015 winner of the Alice Conger Patterson Award offered through the Emrys Foundation. He can be reached at

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2 Responses to “Notes for Newcomers: Who’s Teaching Who?”

  1. Phil,
    The lessons we learn as educators are often from our students. I taught summer day camp K-6th for 15 years and learned as much as I taught. Your essay was enjoyable.

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