Education professor Arthur Hochman teaches in a classroom pre-COVID-19. Courtesy of stories.butler.edu
AUDREY DAVENPORT | email@example.com | OPINION COLUMNIST
Editor’s Note: questions have been slightly edited for clarity
The Butler experience is a combination of different factors — classes, events, friends — but surely a very important one is the professors. Beyond standing at the front of their classrooms or staring at you from a computer screen, they have phenomenal insights that all students should be aware of. “A Word With” is a weekly series that highlights some of the professors who make the Butler experience what it is.
Some people are afraid of what lies outside their comfort zone. But “some people” aren’t Arthur Hochman. He thrives off of being pushed beyond limitations and from our time talking, Arthur expressed to me his dedication to adventure and new experiences; these have led him in directions even he hadn’t anticipated.
Hochman is known for his compassionate teaching style and genuine care for his students. In this interview he speaks to his “learning through experience” philosophy and why connecting with alumni is so rewarding. His passion, vulnerability and understanding are admirable, and I can honestly say that this interview will stay with me well beyond my time at Butler.
One of the first questions that I have for you is that I noticed you included a quote at the end of your email to me; I was wondering where you got it from? [The quote is “She does not let warped ideas of femininity consume her. She rises above them and creates her own reality”]
I change my quote about every month. And the quotes at the end of my emails are always from the same source. They’re always from the students. I never use a quote from any famous person. Most people use quotes from famous people; not that famous people aren’t worth quoting, they certainly are. But I always worry that we always think greatness comes from people who somehow live in a different stratosphere. And we all have it in us.
I find that people are at their most profound and wise when they’re not looking. When it doesn’t feel like a smart contest. A lot of times our students’ experiences can have that kind of quality. So, I try to create assignments where students can express themselves freely and as themselves. And usually what I find is that there’s something in an email or in a paper that is a nugget of something. And they don’t even notice it. And I’ll pull it out, I find at least 20 every semester. And then I rotate them. I get a lot of colleagues that say “can you tell me the text that you got that quote from?” I probably have about 150 or 200 quotes that I have saved over the years from students just being themselves that are powerful and profound.
Did you get the opportunity yourself as a student to express yourself in that way or is that something you didn’t get and you wanted to provide?
I think it’s more of the latter. I struggled mightily as a student. I think I bring that. We all bring our past into our present, of course. And I think that I bring that to my teaching. That understanding of that struggle, and not necessarily seeing myself in the role that I am in now, for example. Others saw it in me.
So, when you were in high school or middle school you didn’t see yourself in a teaching role?
I think if you talked to a lot of people that I went to high school with, they would be surprised that I graduated from college. Because I was just a person who struggled. I went to school at a time when they didn’t have the support in schools for students who didn’t fit in a very defined path of what school is. But you can turn many ways from your experiences. You can either be mired by them or you can learn from them. I think that once I found teaching, I had been doing it for a while before I really felt the calling for it, but I found a place where I worked with dynamic people who also saw the fire in me and began to really see my own identity as a teacher and embraced it.
After high school did you go on to college and pursue teaching?
I pursued education in college as an undergraduate, but not with the goal that this was going to be my career. I graduated thinking that I would use my teaching degree to have adventures, and so — I lived abroad and taught abroad, so I used my teaching degree to do that. That was when I found my calling as a teacher. You can come to your career or it can come to you, and I think my career came to me. And then when I finally came to Butler, I realized my true calling is teaching at the university level.
So you graduated from college, and then decided that you wanted to go abroad, or was abroad always your goal?
Having an adventure was the goal. I wanted to go and have a very foreign experience and have an environment that was very different from anything that I had ever known. But I didn’t speak a foreign language, so how do you have a real foreign experience in a place that speaks English? So I found a group of islands off the west coast of Scotland to live in. And there was one in particular at the time that was very foreign. I’m guessing now it’s not as different. So, I went and had that experience and used my degree to help me have that.
How was the experience teaching abroad?
It was hugely challenging. But very enlightening. It’s hard to see the educational system when you’re in it. You’re like fish in the water. You can’t see beyond your own existence. Going to a place where things were done really differently provided some perspective that I had just assumed. I think I have kind of taken that whole idea with me here and with everything that I had done, because, for example, I team-teach nearly every course that I teach. I’m not doing it now because of the pandemic. But I found that I really like that because it provides a different perspective for me.
I’ve taught with professors in other colleges and I like that. I taught a course, for example, with Margaret Brabant that had half political science students and half education students and fulfilled requirements in both colleges. I’ve taught a text and ideas course with Bonnie Brown in pharmacy.
So, you really like collaborating with people that have different backgrounds than you?
Yes, I normally teach a class with someone in my own college. But I have taught with a number of people with different backgrounds. Frequently I bring students in to work with me because they want to be in education. So I ask them to come teach with me. And then another thing is that all of my courses involve some work in the community. Because I believe strongly in learning through experience. So because of that I always connect with an alum and collaborate with them.
When you say teaching through experience, was there any moment for you during your experience that really reinforced your love for teaching?
Wow, I could name a thousand examples. My love for teaching is from the students. Both when I was teaching little ones and adults. I got an email recently from a student that I had so many years ago, and it took me a while to remember her, but I got this long email about the impact and the meaning of teaching. I have officiated the weddings of a couple students.
People ask me “what are your hobbies,” and I’m not really a hobby kind of person, but connecting with alums is a hobby. I’ll reach out to them if they need support. I think that, to me, is everything. It’s about connecting with other people. The fact that they allow me to walk with them along their path, whatever their path is. I don’t take that for granted.
Do you have any lifelong mentors for you, or do you more so love being that for other people?
I would say that some of my colleagues are like that, but I also see my students in that way. They are mentors for me, and they don’t even know it. I’m working with an alum right now and I look at her as a role model. Her perseverance, persistence, her strength. And it kind of goes along with why I have the quotes that I do. I don’t need to look at someone who is ahead of me in the game. Or more famous than me as a role model. I look at current students.
When was there a point for you that you transitioned from teaching to wanting to teach teachers?
When I finally had a really wonderful experience as a student. When I was going for my master’s degree in Boston, I went to Lesley College there, and I met somebody that I wanted to be when I grew up. This woman was fantastic. I had struggled with math my whole life and she was a math educator by training, so I took every course she taught. I took five courses with her. And everything about her I loved. She was really connected to her students, and was just so joyful about math and learning. And taught in a way that made it feel like the fog had lifted. And just loved teaching.
You could tell that she just loved teaching so much. And she’s the one that really pushed me. She said, ‘you need to go move to New York City. You need to get into teacher education.’ I never saw that in myself, but she saw it in me, and so she was a mentor for me. And then another person I would say was Ena Shelley, who retired last year as our former dean. Because I met Ena and I looked to her as a friend, colleague, mentor, just someone I admired tremendously.
So when you moved to New York to pursue your doctorate, was that a different experience?
It was hard, but wonderful. It was wonderful because I got experience in teacher education. I wanted to student teach again. I kind of went into it with the idea that ‘okay, I have never taught college and I want someone to observe me and give me feedback.’ And that was a place where they honored that.
I had a lot of great teachers there. And then another cool thing about where I went to do my doctorate was that there were people from all over the world there. I remember that there was one person there who was from South Africa, and this was during apartheid times. So, we would be having discussions about how to teach reading and the problem with reading textbooks, and that sort of thing. And he would say, ‘if we only had these textbooks in the population that I work with — we would be lucky to have these textbooks that you are saying are inferior.’ So that perspective that broadens you and gets you to see a view beyond your own circumstance. And I love New York City.
So how do you teach teachers?
Through experience. You can’t learn how to swim via PowerPoint. So I think that the way to do it is that we take them out into local schools and we structure something that is purposeful.
I spend a lot of time beforehand working with the alum, and try to find different alum every semester. I say, ‘okay, how can bringing students in from Butler help you and your students?’ So we plan something together, me and this alum, for our students. I go with them to the site, and we have class there. I will watch them, and then we come back together and unpack what happened.
We learn through the doing. The theory and the practice come together as one. It’s a lot messier to learn that way. Because a theoretical third grader is a lot less complicated than a real third grader. Learn through experience, but in a guided manner when you are thinking critically about what you’re doing and experiencing and noticing.
I’m sitting here listening to how passionate you are about this, and I find it hard to believe that as a student you didn’t see yourself doing this.
One of the courses that I teach is an introductory course with a lot of different educators. And one common element to all of them is that there were surprises in their professional journey. And you might meet someone who taught second grade their whole life and there were still things that surprised them. In retrospect, it all makes sense, you know. For me, it makes sense that I struggled as a student because I bring that sense of empathy and understanding about what it means not to know.
So what advice would you give to people who are struggling or who don’t really feel like they’ve found where they fit in their career path?
Maybe you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up, but you probably know who you want to be when you grow up. And I think that that is the more important thing to focus on.
Sometimes I think we overemphasize the name of the job we’re looking for. Besides that, we also have students who invent their own jobs. They create jobs that have never existed. So I would say focus more on who you want to be. What kind of environment you want to be in, what kind of people do you want to work with. Let’s say, for example, that I got a degree in something else. I think I would still be in the people business. I’m meant to do that. And also focus on places where you can feel authentic and be yourself. They may not have the name or job titled connected to it.
What do you think that you would be doing if you weren’t a teacher?
Something in the people business. Maybe social work. Physical therapy. Something where I can interact with people. I do have a love for the arts, so I do have a feeling for that. The two courses that I teach involving the arts don’t focus on any particular art form, they focus on them all. One of them is how to integrate the arts into the elementary classroom. And because of that, I don’t want to emphasize one art form over another.
I don’t want to tell little kids that if you are a mover, that somehow dance is less important or valid than music. If you’re someone who lives in their imagination, that somehow acting has less cache than visual arts. So, I integrate all of them.
I teach a PCA where I try to integrate all of them there, although we do emphasize visual arts a little more there. But personally, I think music is the one that I connect to the most. I’ve been to so many concerts. My taste in music is so broad. I gravitate to the new in life. I love meeting new people. I love going to new places. I used to seek out teaching new classes regularly. My wife and I will go to hear Arabic singers, we’ll go to hear singers from the Dominican Republic, country music and hip hop, classical music and opera. I like all genres.
With your love of the new, does that mean you get bored, or is it the adventure part that really appeals to you?
Both. Like in teaching, there have been a lot of challenges with the pandemic. I mean, talk about getting the creative juices flowing. As someone who is committed to learning through experience, trying to create authenticity really got my creativity flowing.
Even when I was face to face, I changed half the courses I would teach every year. I also think you are going through something new with the students, so they’re vulnerable. They’re always the vulnerable party. So I want to keep this dynamic tension of not knowing what’s going to happen with them.
When I bring students out with me to work with alum, it’s completely new every semester. And then we co-construct with the third graders, with the college students. It’s not always exactly how you plan it, but that’s what you get in the professional world with any major.
Do you consider yourself a lifelong learner? Is that something that you seek out?
I do. And I think that in a way, I build it in through obvious ways, but also by pushing myself to have these new experiences all the time. Coming from alums and being out in the world and the challenges that come with that.
So you frequently push yourself out of your comfort zone?
Yes, in a way I would say that’s my comfort zone.
I guess then your comfort zone is never a barrier for any experience that you want to have.
Yes, I always think, ‘well, think of all the things that we are asking you to do.’ We are asking you to be vulnerable. If I ask you a question in class, and you have to raise your hand and think of something. We might be giving you a test and you might be nervous. At every step of the way we are asking you to be vulnerable.
And so living in that, and walking with you. Am I standing in front of you or am I walking with you, and I prefer to walk with my students. I always worry when I start feeling like I’m an expert, or if I start acting like an expert. I want to feel like I’m learning with you. I’m not truly as vulnerable as the student because I have stumbled so many times that I am used to the stumbling.
Do you think that teachers need more support emotionally?
I think they do. Anything that we do in life that involves being vulnerable, frequently what happens is that people don’t want to talk about their vulnerability. I would include anybody who works with people in that. People often have a tough time sharing about that. And in my experience with teaching, teachers are such givers and they’re so focused on that that they don’t have time for self care.
I always ask the question of who’s nurturing the nurturers. Teaching is not just about the teacher thinking that we use, it’s also about the teacher feeling.