“Teaching may be the greatest of the arts because the medium is the human mind and spirit.” John Steinbeck
The original occasion for this piece was a gathering of thirty outstanding teachers from all over the United States. They had been accorded that status by their district, county or state or in a few cases their own school. They had been recognized as outstanding due to their achievements, their unflagging zeal and their commitments to the profession and to their students and colleagues. They were star quality teachers. They were each invited to come to Santa Fe, New Mexico because I wanted to know why they were outstanding and why they, among so many, had been singled out for this special reward and publicity. What they told me was that they never gave up, that they believed they could always do and be better, that they worked hard. It was clear that they were conscientious, responsible, reliable and dependable and that they loved what they did. It was also clear that they loved their students. Here is what I told them.
We teach because we want to transcend that which holds us back…that and the sacred otherness of life are the most compelling reasons that we teach. We all know the things that hold us back. We have looked at and encountered some of the obstacles and barriers and they come in all forms, shapes and sizes. Here is a partial list in no particular order: uncooperative or uninvolved parents; unrealistic and bureaucratic administrators; unmotivated and apathetic students; colleagues suffering from arteriosclerosis of the mind and heart; discouraging lack of progress as shown by where we are compared to other industrialized nations of the world; reading and writing proficiencies; math skills and general knowledge.
Realize that only one-third of eleventh graders in the United States could identify, on a multiple choice test, in which half century the Civil War was fought, less than 40% could identify the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation and fewer than two-thirds knew the significance of Brown versus the Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. Appalling? I think it is inexcusable, irresponsible and the result of years of cowardice and caving in trying to please everyone by making it easy, comfortable and appealing, and trying to find shortcuts to success.
Real learning means that children inevitably find out that they are not the center of the universe, that they are not infallible or invincible and that pooled ignorance has no place in the classroom or a school, let along in our state and national governments. Their group does not rule the ant hill and they will learn that their lives and ours, if lived honestly and with integrity, will be eked out in the valley of tears sometimes and that mastery of any academic subject demands hours, days and even years of hard work and maybe, just maybe a high degree of individual responsibility and accountability.
In one school where I worked we adopted our own three R’s, as we liked to call them, and while on the surface it sounds canned, like “Character Counts”, I think it went farther in terms of understanding the reasons and the values for adopting such a code of ethical behavior. The three R’s were Respect, Responsibility and Restraint. Most have often heard of the first two but seldom the last one, and all we need to do to know how much we need to exercise restraint before we speak is to sample some of the behavior of both children and adults in both the public and private domains. Television, the movies and social media are filled with examples of the lack of restraint, often in the name of entertainment. Who are the role models for our children today? Fortunately for some of the students of these outstanding teachers, they have served as models for their students.
One of those outstanding teachers said to me that one of the biggest rewards she had was a student coming to her and saying, “I want to be just like you.” That student may not know entirely what “just like you” means and what that teacher has done and what she does all the time to be who she is. But there is something about teachers that is extremely valuable that often reaches students at more than a cognitive level. We teach because we care and because we want to make a difference. We teach because we want to change schools and communities and the world. Another of the outstanding teachers wore a pin that said she was changing the world, one student at a time. It is about growth and change. And here we have this magnificent and wonderful opportunity to teach kids the value of learning and knowing, of loving what you do, of being happy that we have been given a place where we can express the best that is within us.
We teach because we want our students to become active, lifelong learners, sharing ideas and experiences, telling stories and being affirmed and encouraged and supported to go on. We want to challenge our students, lead and direct them and have them take on responsibility for their own learning and growth. It’s why we like to see them graduate and continue their journey with whatever we have been able to add and contribute to the process. We want them to be inspired by that which sustains life, that which enriches and makes it exciting, enjoyable and rewarding, that which makes it all worthwhile. It is really an awesome and noble profession that you have chosen, or that has chosen you.
So, we teach, not because we can’t do something else but of all the things we could do, this act of teaching, this commitment and dedication to kids and families and schools and communities, this helping people to value themselves and others, and helping them to learn how to live productive, constructive, creative lives. This is what gives us all hope that the world will be better because we and they walked in it for awhile together.