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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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

Chris Briem of Null Space drops by Pittsblog from time to time.

All opinions expressed at Pittsblog 2.0 are those of their respective authors and of no one (and no thing) else, least of all the University of Pittsburgh.

Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.


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