Thomas Ehrlich on "Why I Teach"

July 25, 2013


For me, the ‘teaching seed’ was planted when I was in second grade. I was in love with my teacher, Mrs. Scattergood, so much so that one day I called my mother “Mrs. Scattergood.” My mother was not pleased, but she later claimed that at that moment she knew I would someday be a teacher. When I was fifteen, I told my grandmother that I was going to become a law teacher. Here’s how that happened. She was in her 80’s, and starting when I was about twelve, I often had lunch with her at the Braemore Hotel on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, where she lived. At the end of every lunch, she would give me a new book to read and discuss at our next lunch. The book I remember best was a biography of Louis Brandeis, the famous jurist. When I read about how he grappled with the ills of society, I announced to my grandmother that I would teach law someday. In 1965, I finally kept my word when I came to teach at Stanford Law School. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no idea how to shift from the role of student to teacher. The School offered no guidance, apparently expecting me to know by osmosis how to teach. Because I had loved the “Contracts Law” course I took as a law student, I offered to teach that subject. I also wanted to teach “International Law,” though I had never taken a course in that subject at Harvard Law School. But I came to Stanford with a suitcase full of materials from three years working as a lawyer in the State Department and had the brass to believe I could fashion a course on international law from those materials. Throughout that first year, I felt only a half-step ahead of my students, but then I joined forces with Harvard Professor Abram Chayes, who had been my law-school teacher and whom I had worked for in Washington. Together we fashioned a new approach to teaching international law, one that focused on the ways that international law is created, using real issues we had wrestled with, such as legal basis for a quarantine of Cuba during the Missile Crisis. Chayes was a great teacher, and I learned from him the art of the Socratic exchange (later famously caricatured by Scott Turow in “One L”). Teaching Contracts Law was a difficult learning experience for me. Because I had done well as a law student, I found it hard to understand the bottlenecks that made learning difficult for the law students who struggled, as most of them did. To gain a sense of myself as a teacher, I asked a Law School staff member to videotape my classes for two weeks. When I watched those videos, I was horrified. I looked as stiff and as nervous as I felt. I started holding informal brown-bag lunch sessions with any students who wanted to join me, with the express aim of making me a better teacher while they became better learners of contract law. And things did get better—for the students and for me. From this embarrassing realization of my own inadequacies, I learned an important lesson about teaching: Most students want their teachers to succeed, perhaps almost as much as they want to be successful students themselves. In later years as an academic administrator at Penn and Indiana, I taught one course every year and began working hard to understand how students learn and how good teachers teach. I was inspired by Scholarship Reconsidered by Ernest Boyer, then head of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Ironically, that’s where I worked starting in 1999, after a five-year stint teaching community-service learning courses at San Francisco State. Today I am teaching about teaching and learning, trying to pull together what I have learned—and continue to learn. Recalling how Stanford Law School just assumed–incorrectly–that I knew how to teach, I have developed (with lots of help) a course at the Stanford Graduate School of Education to assist those who will end up in higher-education classrooms and administrative offices understand the essence of their enterprise, teaching. I love teaching this class because it offers everything I missed when I started teaching (and what most new college and university faculty lack as well). Like me, my graduate students have been observing teachers most of their lives, which often gives them a false sense that, because they know what teachers do, they will be able to step in front of a classroom and be successful. Some seem to have been ‘brainwashed’ by senior professors to believe that scholarship and research should trump teaching. The course I teach, which includes students from across the university in many disciplines, seeks to overturn those false notions. My students then become apprentice teachers in a safe environment that allows them to fail, an experience which, I hope, helps set them on the way to successful careers in teaching.