What Teachers Do

I am no fan of Ruth Ann Dailey's politics, and even looking at the world from her perspective I usually find her writing on political and social matters unpersuasive.

But ... and this is a big "but" ... her column on Monday was a moving and elegantly written account of something that captures the best of what teachers are about: changing students' lives, and enabling those students to change others' lives.

The column recounted how a number of the students of a gifted teacher of percussion, including Ruth Ann Dailey's husband, reunited recently to perform together with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (in which RAD's husband, Andrew Reamer, is a principal player).  And with their teacher, Alan Abel, now 82 years old.  Acknowledging him and thanking him in this way was a great and honorable thing to do.

The headline -- "We stand, in awe, on the giants before us" -- did not capture the full beauty of the story, unfortunately, and I assume that it was not chosen by the author.  Yes, as RAD pointed out, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and Alan Abel is a giant in his field.  That aphorism is usually attributed (erroneously) to Newton, but Newton did repeat it, and he repeated it not to honor his forebears but to demean them - or him; precisely, Newton used the phrase as a put-down of his rival, Hooke.  Let me recapture an element of Newton's meaning but put it to positive use here.  Sure, there is awe of Alan Abel, but there is a lot more to recognize and celebrate.

Alan Abel's students were given a gift, by him.  Alan Abel's students received a lifetime of inspiration.  They have done exactly what a gifted teacher would ask them to do.  They paid that gift forward, showing the world (the PSO audience, and now the PG audience) not only what a great teacher he was, but also what greater students and performers they have become as a result of receiving his gifts.  Those who stand on the shoulders of giants stand higher than their forebear; they can see farther, and better.  The students have become the teachers. It is they who now inspire.  A teacher can receive no greater honor from his students, or hers, than to see those students changing the lives of those around them.


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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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