Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

A Teacher Keeps Learning...From Her Students

October 15, 2008

Listen to Teacher of the Year Evelyn Ackerman as she talks about why she chose teaching as her profession and what Lehman students have taught her, in return.

9 Minutes 19 Seconds

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This is Kenesha Phillip, a Political Science and Philosophy major at Lehman College and Student Conference Senator. In this segment, Lehman celebrates the start of the 2008 academic year with its annual convocation ceremony.

Listen to Teacher of the Year Evelyn Ackerman as she talks about why she chose teaching as her profession and what Lehman students have taught her, in return.

Professor Ackerman has taught history at Lehman since 1973. She specializes in French social and intellectual history and the social history of medicine.



The advantage of Lehman is a wonderful succession of students-- interested, curious, probing. After a while, I began to look at my research as stories I could tell my classes. I wish I had a nice coherent philosophy of education to talk about. And I've tried to formulate one. This is the best I can do.

Teaching, to me, is really about listening. Of course, we as professors present a body of knowledge. But a central question for us should be, "How will our students hear it?" All of us who teach seek the best way to make knowledge interactive. How can we make our classes center on students' thoughts and reactions? How can we make the class not be all about us and our lofty ideas?

I faced these challenges during the years I taught-- many "History of Medicine" courses, both in the History Department and in the Lehman Scholars Program. My students were often from the Caribbean or elsewhere, and they had come to train in the United States in the health professions. At that time, I was writing a book on what happened in France between 1800 and 1914 when licensed physicians tried to convince often-rural, skeptical people that scientific medicine was better than the herbal medicine they knew well.


My students might have learned something from me, but I'm sure I learned much more from their questions and especially their observations on how seriously people took herbal medicine. I do anecdotes better than philosophy of education. So here is my first one.

We used to have a required course on world history, "Core 104." And one semester I had an especially bright economics major from Nigeria, Lucky Abomwa. You may be struck by his first name. But I was much more aware of his last name, Abomwa, ahead of mine alphabetically-- rather rare. I asked Lucky to teach the hour on the economies of developing countries. And not surprisingly, he did a great job.

At the end of the hour, a young woman came up to me and said she wished she could speak English as well as he so she could tell her story. "See you in my office at 9:00," I responded. Vith Sakoon, who was from Cambodia, was there, in fact, Monday at 9:00. And we began a project that lasted years. Vith had escaped from the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists. Her story was riveting. I encouraged her to write it. She did, working on her English along the way. She obviously took English courses throughout.


As we worked, we got to know each other a little, making the usual polite inquiries, "How are you feeling today? How are you?" I learned a certain amount about Southeast Asian medicine from her. And this took my research in an entirely new and quite gratifying direction, as I embarked on a study of French Colonial medicine in Indochina. And Vith achieved her goals, became a nurse, and I think received a national level commendation.

Vith's story was especially poignant for me because her graduation from Lehman in 1990, ten years after her arrival in America, paralleled my own father's graduation from City College ten years after his arrival in America many years earlier. Precisely because many of our students have a history of migration or immigration in their families, they have an automatic lived understanding of comparative cultures. They don't expect everybody to be the same.

Concepts that one might have to spend a great deal of time explaining at a school with a more homogenous student body are quickly understood here. Lehman students are also very polite, almost courtly. People wait a little longer holding the door for others than they do in the rest of the city. Have you noticed that? (LAUGHTER) It's true. Maybe it's the tranquilizing effect of our beautiful campus. Or maybe we're just very nice. (LAUGHTER)


Lehman students, perhaps because so many have lives filled with the responsibilities of work and family as well as school, as Mr. Ortiz just told us-- relate to faculty as if we, too, are adults with responsibilities, not simply surrogate parents. Another anecdote. About 20 years ago, I had a very talented student, Marlene Quimina. During the fall semester, she was in the process of applying to graduate school, and so she would come to my office from time to time for advice, for letters of recommendation, and so forth.

I must have mentioned that my very favorite aunt was in the hospital very sick. One day in early December, Marlene came by my office and asked about my aunt. I thanked her for her concern and told her that my aunt probably wasn't going to make it. We chatted some more, and then I sort of said, "Well, you know, why are you here? What can I do for you?" Or I tried to be a little more polite. "Oh," she said, "nothing. I just wanted to ask about your aunt." I was really moved and obviously have never forgotten that.

I like the idea that after our students graduate, they share their professional expertise with younger Lehmanites. I think that Martha Estevis, who I think is here -- Martha, do you wanna stand up -- (APPLAUSE) who came here from the Dominican Republic when she was 15 with very little English. She was always the student in the first row with loads of questions, always asking them.


Now, armed with both her bachelor's and master's degrees, she's a guidance counselor at P.S. 32, the Belmont School, which is nearby. She's got a great office and it's very pretty. (LAUGHTER) And she is very generous with advice to the many students I refer to her when they ask me questions about their professional future that I cannot answer.

And finally, and very affectionately, I'd like to acknowledge my parents, Zelda and Arthur S. Ackerman. Both grew up in homes where English was not spoken. Yiddish was spoken. Both were graduates of CUNY. And both taught foreign languages in the city schools for many years. Throughout their lives, they were -- in the case of my mother -- still are big CUNY boosters. No neo-conservatism here. (LAUGHTER) No way. No how. Just a great interest and a great delight in the achievements of the CUNY students who followed them.

And so it is in the name of all these beacons of good teaching and in my own name, that I wanted to wish everybody here a great year. Go for your dreams. Don't listen to anyone who discourages you. Be sure to graduate. And, oh, yes, please remember to read your papers and reread your papers (LAUGHTER) carefully. Before you hand them in. (LAUGHTER) Spell-check is not enough. Thank you.




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