We traditionally think of a teacher as a professional instructor, an individual who stands at the front of a classroom and imparts knowledge to students. Simply stated, teachers teach and students learn. I would argue, however, that as we navigate our daily lives, each of us continuously alternates between the roles of teacher and student. We constantly learn from and teach others how to behave. Davis (2004) suggests, “anyone, anywhere, anytime might be a teacher. Everyone, everywhere, at all times is thus seen to have a certain ethical responsibility to behave well” (p.54).
Rarely do we think about the influence we have on others. But our every word, our every action has the power to influence and impact others’ lives. As social beings, we constantly interact with those around us — our families, co-workers, acquaintances, passers by, the barista at the coffee shop, the teller at the store. We each have a sphere of influence. Most often we associate spheres of influence with important leaders, powerful businessmen, writers, philosophers, etc. However, we each interact with a group of people, be it large or small. That group or community of individuals can be designated as our sphere of influence.
We leave our mark on those we interact with daily. As we manage our busy lives, most of us rarely examine our hurried automatic and often unintentional interactions with others. We seldom take the time to reflect on the significant impact we may have on others. It behooves us to become consciously aware that with each of our human interactions, we have the power to impact others, either positively or negatively.
The choice is ours. We possess the power to make someone feel good with a small kind gesture, or alternatively the power to hurt someone with a disdainful remark. No matter how we conduct ourselves, we leave an imprint on those we directly interact with, those within our sphere of influence.
The educational philosopher, John Dewey (1938), argued that “every experience lives on in further experiences” (p. 27) and that an individual’s experiences change them. One small interaction can influence an individual’s perspective and be carried forward with them into their future experiences and future interactions. One small situational interaction can live on, being carried forward, even altering an individual’s very being. Jarvis (2006) conceptualizes that an individual’s social experiences are integrated into their biography, affecting a change in that person. It may be overwhelming to conceive that the smallest of our interactions may have the power to shape another’s very being, but it can.
Our power to impact can also extend beyond our direct human interaction with a single individual. Every person we interact with in turn operates within their sphere of influence. If by chance we have smiled at someone, made them feel just a little better, that positive impression can possibly be carried forward indirectly into their circle of influence. We have reach. There is a ripple effect to our interactions.
We not only have the power to impact the present through our human interactions but we also have influence on the future. Our interactions can impact an individual’s biography and therefore their future interactions. Given that we have this power to extend some influence on the present as well as on into the future, we should use our power wisely. We should become conscious of our influence and aspire to behave as best we can with others; aim to impact positively.
Not only do we react to each other’s words and actions, but we learn from them as well. We learn what to do, or what not to do. If you know someone who constantly acts badly, speaks meanly, and takes every opportunity to be nasty, you can choose to learn from them what not to do. You can become the consummate learner and shift those experiences to be positive for yourself. By reflecting on, and internalizing these experiences, you can put a positive spin on a negative experience. You can decide not to behave similarly. You do not have to imitate. Rather, you can register these experiences into your ‘how not to behave’ mindset. You can learn to act differently. You can choose to be positive, kinder in nature. You can learn and teach to be the better person.
We have many exemplars who conduct themselves in a way that shapes our mainstream culture positively. Some individuals are recognized for their societal influence while others may rise and take action in a singular significant moment. Take for example Rosa Parks’ defiant act, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery Alabama. She chose not to surrender her seat to a white individual while she was seated in the “coloured section” of the bus she was riding. Her quiet act of defiance turned Rosa Parks into a symbol of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S.A. Her single action had a long-term positive impact on society. But we ordinary citizens don’t have to aspire to such lofty heights to contribute to society in a meaningful way; to leave a positive legacy. We merely have to interact kindly with others. Each single act of goodness, no matter how small, can have a positive impact now and on into the future.
We are constant learners and teachers. Better we be aware of these continuous role interchanges in our lives, and act accordingly. By acknowledging that we have influence, that we do affect others through the smallest of our interactions, we have the power to influence positively, to become better teachers, better citizens. Livingston (2000) explains that our informal learning never ends. He says, “in basic socialization, learning and acting constitute a seamless web in which it is impossible to distinguish informal learning activities in any discrete way” (p. 2).
Young, old, middle-aged, we all can make the choice to become ethically responsible citizens through our kind behaviour; to play the role of benevolent teacher. Palmer (1999) offers, “this profound human transaction called teaching and learning – is not just about getting information or getting a job. Education is about healing and wholeness. It is about empowerment, liberation, transcendence, about renewing the vitality of life. It is about finding and claiming ourselves and our place in the world” (pp. 18-19). We are all teachers. Yet rarely do we acknowledge this powerful aspect of ourselves.
As social beings, we constantly brush against each other in our daily lives. We spread joy, or hurt one another, inadvertently or deliberately. Becoming aware of, and responsible for, our actions has the power to turn us into benevolent teachers, positive role models, wiser and more mindful citizens. We do have the power to shape a more altruistic, kinder society through our daily, compassionate social interactions. The choice is ours.
Davis, B. (2004). Inventions of teaching: A genealogy. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: The Macmillan Company.
Jarvis, P. (2006). Towards a comprehensive theory of human learning. New York, NY: Routledge
Livingston, D. W. (2000). Exploring the icebergs of adult learning: Findings of the first Canadian survey of informal learning practices (NALL Working Paper #10-2000). Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education website: http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/depts/sese/csew/nall/res/10exploring.htm
Palmer, P. (1999). The grace of great things: Reclaiming the sacred in knowing, teaching, and learning. In Glazier, S., The heart of learning: Spirituality in education (pp.15-32). New York, NY: Tarcher/Putnam