I have had the privilege and challenge of teaching in high school for almost 30 years. I use the word privilege because a high school teacher enters into a wonderful, complicated give-and-take relationship with a very interesting group of people. I use the word challenge because teaching is a risky business, in which you are exposed as a person in front of a group of teens who figure out in about two seconds whether you are “real” or not. If they can tell that you don’t like your work, you may have lost them before you even begin.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are. This is not to dissuade you from this tremendous vocation; in fact, such a perspective actually frees you as an educator to learn to be rather than to learn the latest pedagogical trick. Good teaching and learning come together in classrooms where teachers create holy learning spaces that are based in hospitality, humility, and humour.
I cannot recount the number of stories that I have heard over my many years in the classroom about teachers who didn’t care. They either didn’t care about the students or they didn’t care about the subject that they were teaching. In either case, the students were not led to curiosity, inspiration, or connection. They saw those classes as unsafe or as intolerable drudgery. Students need you to care. First and foremost, they need hospitable teachers who love their students, love learning, and love sharing their knowledge.
I do not want to give the impression that what you teach, how you teach, or how you assess and evaluate is not important. All of those things are important. And I would say that teachers who care deeply about their students and have a passion for their subjects will strive to look for the most creative ways to develop learning through differentiated instruction, enduring understandings, ongoing and reflective assessment and evaluation, and a wide variety of pedagogical strategies. But what I am suggesting is that all the good planning in the world may go to naught if you do not genuinely use your position of authority in your classroom with humility, respect, compassion, and justice.
Teaching is risky. You find yourself constantly asking, if my students aren’t learning, am I really teaching? There is nothing more exhilarating to a teacher than when a student finally declares that he or she understands and proudly demonstrates a newly acquired skill or problem-solving technique, or an engaged group of students are discussing the article or problem, or a student comes back years later to thank you for your encouragement and your belief in her. Teaching and learning is about connecting self, student, and subject. It is the place where all three unite in a core way, where the I and the thou are honoured, and we together marvel at the subject that we are coming to know. That subject may draw out of us our sense of self, our sense of wonder and awe.
There will be times when a teacher might not be able to care. The reasons may be many: exhaustion, depression, lack of support, loss of hope, or a gnawing doubt about the choice of your profession. If you ever feel yourself sliding in this direction (and we have all had times like this), be sure to seek out help. That help may be in the form of a mentor who will be able to show you a way out of the darkness, or it may be in the form of a truth-teller who helps you through a change in profession. We all need encouragement and an excellent support network, so begin building one around you now.
I often asked my students, “What are some things that you would like to tell us, the teachers, about teaching and learning?” Their answers always went something like this:
We want you not to overreact when we do something wrong or say something outrageous. We want you not to take our outbursts or actions so personally. We want you to “see” us. We need mentors who can call us to account but who are also able to laugh with us when something is really funny. We want to be inspired and we want to understand the meaning of the important things in life. We ask you to be our guides.
We truly are in the encouragement business, laying the groundwork for the future. Sometimes we are privileged to see the fruit of our labours; sometimes we are not. But as we “lay down our lives for our friends (or students),” we must do so with a great deal of respect, humility and, hopefully, a good dose of humour.
Welcome to a most challenging, fulfilling, and frustrating vocation. You are entering into work that never seems to be done, that has so many layers that it seems insurmountable. But you may just find it the most rewarding, wonderful, and blessed task you’ve been given.