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Writing  by Leslie Dock

Artwork by Giobbi

Maybe you have heard the phrase “You learn by teaching.” Psychologists have a term for this; it’s called The Protégé Effect. Essentially, a teacher achieves a greater understanding or mastery of a subject through the act of demonstrating their knowledge to a student. When an instructor takes the time to break down a lesson into easily digestible concepts for their pupil, they engage in active, rather than passive, learning. 

Then there is the act of teaching itself. Verbal presentation of material further cements it in the brain. Plus, the mood of a classroom, the off-beat questions, the little discoveries and failures and ah-ha moments they all test an instructor’s ability to think on their feet and creatively respond.

It doesn’t ring quite true to label any of my students protégés or assume that I have achieved mastery of any given subject. What seems more certain is the idea that I have learned more from my students than they have learned from me.

I didn’t set out to be a teacher. The high marks I scored from kindergarten through graduate school were more a result of my own desire to learn, have the correct answer or compete with classmates than they were to please a teacher. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, the first female NFL quarterback was top of the list, and teacher? Well, teacher didn’t even make my list. 

I attended a small, private Christian school through sixth grade with 212 students total, kindergarten through high school. Class sizes ranged from small to miniature. The teachers ran a tight ship, and the principal had the authority to discipline via paddling. While I benefited from such an environment academically, I performed countless covert acts of rebellion and no doubt tested my teachers’ patience to the very edge. 

When I chose to study acting in college, I was told that I should get a teaching certificate immediately upon graduation or risk certain starvation. Though this warm and fuzzy bit of encouragement came from an admired and reputable source, all I could think of was a stuffy classroom full of ungrateful brats just like I had been. No way.

 My first teaching experience came the summer after my junior year of undergrad. I landed a job as a crew leader with Northwest Youth Corps. After a whirlwind week of training, I was set loose in the wilds of Oregon with a thirteen passenger van, equipment trailer, one adult assistant and eleven teenagers. 

We were tasked with the completion of a variety of projects, including trail building and maintenance, slash piling, seedling netting on clear cuts and backcountry bridge building, to name just a few. 

The crew members were your average American teens, meaning most hadn’t ever camped or held a hazel hoe. It was my job to keep the crew safe, happy and productive by day and somehow work our way through an environmental education curriculum in the evening. I was way over my head with my first crew. 

Those five weeks felt like twenty. It was sink or swim, and somehow, I managed not to drown. To say I learned a lot is an understatement. Most important was the lesson to speak with calm conviction and confidence, even if I’m dying inside. Teenagers smell fear like a shark smells a drop of blood spilled miles away in a vast ocean. 

A new teacher must maintain order and an effective learning atmosphere or all is lost. By the time I was allotted a second batch of teens, I was still a rookie, but a seasoned one at least; my little experience went a long way. 

The second half of that summer was still tough, but I had learned how to be a leader and, much to my surprise, discovered I actually enjoyed teaching. The look of comprehension on a kid’s face filled me with joy, and I found that holding the floor during a lesson was akin to a mini theatrical performance.

After graduation, I went back for another summer. The energy and bright, shiny confidence of a 21 year old is a beautiful thing, and I threw myself into the job. 

I learned to speak less and ask more questions. I learned that energy and positivity are contagious. I learned that teenagers are far more capable than they let on, and they prefer a tough teacher over one that tries to be their buddy. I learned to ask for help, especially from someone I am supervising. I learned that asking someone to teach another what they have learned creates pride and cohesiveness in a group.

My next foray into teaching was vastly different from the first. As a graduate school actor on a full scholarship, I was required to teach an acting class to non-acting majors. Fresh off a first year of conservatory training and feeling myself a little too much, I was eager to meet my students and try out the director’s chair for a change. 

What awaited me were young adults, most of whom had chosen the course because they thought it would be fun and easy. It was surprisingly difficult to break them out of their shells and commit to trying exercises that might make them look foolish in front of their peers. They often skipped class, and those who did come were often unprepared. 

From this experience, I learned to pump the brakes on my enthusiasm and expectations and focus on the basics. I learned that young adults are very sleepy creatures, so it’s best to get them on their feet whenever possible. I learned to ask students to set goals for themselves. Most of all, I learned that feedback from a peer is often more motivating and illuminating than feedback from the instructor.

Master’s degree in hand, I set off for New York City to pursue my dream of becoming a working actor. My first survival job? Substitute teacher. I learned that being a sub is tough, thankless work, and I never want to be a substitute teacher again. (I hereby apologize to every substitute I harassed as a child, and I encourage you to do the same.)

A few years ago, I found my way back to teaching. A friend referred me to a lovely local woman who wanted to host an organic gardening class in her home. The small group of women in attendance were gracious and patient, even as I attempted to cram in countless facts about the wonders of soil science, the rhizosphere and organic fertilizers. Apparently I had forgotten that, in teaching, sometimes less is more. Still, that class marked the beginning of what has become a welcome part of my professional life. 

I have learned that I enjoy teaching both children and adults in a variety of settings. I have learned that everyone’s attention span is bolstered by a hands-on activity. I have learned that there is no such thing as too much humor in a lesson. I have learned that teaching can be both exhausting and exhilarating. 

Most of all, I discovered that teaching feeds my learning habit. I guess I’ll have to update that list of what I want to be when I grow up.

This article was published in the September/October edition of Katonah Connect.

Leslie Dock
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Leslie Dock is an accomplished freelance farmer, gardener, permaculture practitioner and educator based in Katonah. Originally from Wisconsin, she made her way to NYC to pursue a career in acting in 2001. After 15 years in the city and numerous vocations, she moved to Katonah with her family and discovered a passion for agriculture and gardening.

“I feel so lucky to live in Katonah,” Leslie says. “We have access to a small-town community and communion with nature and one of the greatest cities in the world. The only thing missing is a killer taco joint in town.”