Charles Van Riper on a Teacher’s Responsibility to His or Her Students

A couple of weeks ago I circumnavigated northern Vermont and New Hampshire. After twenty years, I enjoyed seeing the Northeast Kingdom again. Making my way, I indulged in a favorite pastime, haunting used book stores. I stumbled across, I believe in St. Johnsbury, a book by Ken Macrorie called 20 Teachers: In Their Own Words, Extraordinary Educators from First Grade through Graduate School Tell What Works for Their Students and Why (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984). The book appears to be long out of print–a targeted search on Amazon (i.e. including both title and author name)  turns up some used copies, but a general internet search doesn’t (but it will net you rubbish like “20 Hot Teachers That [sic!] Slept With Their Students”). That’s probably just as well; the book is a mixed bag and poorly copyedited, a particular bugaboo of mine.

However, one of the 20 teachers whose remarks distinguish this otherwise lackluster volume is the late Charles Van Riper. Mr. Van Riper was a pioneer in the field of speech pathology and audiology. A severe stutterer, he knew whereof he spoke, wrote (he compiled an eclectic and extensive bibliography during his long career) and practiced. His work as a speech therapist remained as important to him as his scholarly endeavors, and he was possessed of a beautifully clear sense of ethical compassion for his charges and a love for his profession.

Here is an excerpt from a statement Charles Van Riper made to his staff in 1967 (“or thereabouts”) that I thought important for those of us working with students who have diverse learning needs; I quote this from page 115 of the edition of 20 Teachers cited above.

Our duty to our students, to our cases, to all our fellows, is to set them free. We must not bind with our chains their potentials, for our own selfish needs or ego status or in revenge for our own enslavement. We must guard ourselves constantly lest we make them dependent upon us for our own ego-needs. This is hard to do, for many of our cases and students will seduce us into the master’s role, thereby absolving themselves of the burden of responsibility for their own failure to fulfill themselves. We must not blame them, for this is all they have known but we should not aid them in their folly. Each of us is responsible for the fulfillment of his potential….

How then can we help our cases and students to realize these truths, if truths they be? First of all we must hunt hard in each of them for every small sign of potential, focus upon it our spotlight of faith, reward its confrontation by our own pleasure in the insight. Next we must help them to search for alternative modes of action and insist that they choose the one most promising in the long run. To do this, of course, they must gather and scan the available information and do some predicting. This they will resist because of the labor and the responsibility involved. They should be encouraged in every way to get this and do this. We must not get it for them and do it for them though we can make it easier. But we must not say to them “This is what you should do or try.'”The moment we do this, we assume the role of master; we make them dependent. Always they should choose. We must help them learn to hunt for ideas and activities from any source, from books, from other members of the staff, from their own cortical convolutions or glands–but they should choose and we should not tell them which one they should choose. Let them find out!

All men should be their teachers and supervisors. A supervisor should be a companion, not a comptroller, he must not be a yes-no man, a good-bad man. We can control by praise as well as punishment. Accordingly, we must as teachers, therapists, and supervisors, be permissive, giving absolution for comprehended errors of judgment, but always helping our students to grow tall. Our responsibility is to make them responsible.

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