When you go into teaching, you confront yourself. You see your own weaknesses and subject yourself to others’ judgment. You have to adjust your actions, moment to moment, and yet stay strong. To do any of this well, you need a sturdy place in your life where you do not need to prove or explain yourself. You must keep a good portion of your life in reserve.
Of course, this need varies from person to person. There are teachers who live for their work, year in, year out. They seem content, even though they do little outside of school. Others plunge into their work for a few years and then move on to something else. Still others try from the start to protect their lives, with varying degrees of success. A few stay detached all along; they have no difficulty putting their work aside at the end of the day, or even before.
No matter what a teacher’s relation to her work, she will be asked to do more and more. Teachers are expected not only to plan and deliver lessons, but also to document every aspect of their work, take part in community and professional activities, attend numerous meetings, gather and analyze “data,” perform other assigned duties, shift duties unexpectedly, and be available after hours. These numerous tasks crowd out the basic responsibility of a teacher: namely, to teach well and then go home.
What does it mean to teach well? It takes many different forms, but it consists of bringing student and subject matter closer together. This carries three basic risks: the risk of failure (where the student doesn’t understand or doesn’t take interest in the subject), the risk of success (where the student doesn’t need you any more—temporarily or permanently), and the risk of ambiguity (where it isn’t entirely clear whether you have succeeded or failed). All three can be painful; it takes strength to contend with them.
Where does this strength come from? Not out of exhaustion or out of a hectic day. Not out of “turn-and-talk” activities or the Common Core Standards. To face the daily failures, successes, and ambiguities of teaching, one needs intellect and humanity—that is, a full life. Some may find this in literature, some in religion. Some may have it in their families. Some may find it when carving wood. This is where “going home” comes in; a teacher must have a separate existence, not just a rushed break now and then.
You don’t show your full humanity in the classroom, but it is there nonetheless. Within a single lesson you may have clumsiness and grace, patience and impatience, accuracy and error, alertness and abstraction, and more and more; these combinations and permutations affect how things go. Of course, they don’t fully control the course of events; the subject matter has its own ways, and students bring a great deal of their own. Nonetheless, there’s motion along a precipice. There’s a sense of fate and flexibility at once; you bring your knowledge and character to the table (and can’t change them once you’re there) but still adjust to the company and room.
This sounds exhausting, someone might say. Why would someone put herself on the line, day after day? Well, it’s a joyous undertaking, if it doesn’t break you. That takes us back to the beginning: a teacher must have a stronghold. Yet a stronghold isn’t enough. A teacher must also have the students’ basic attention.
Today it is more or less assumed that a teacher must fight for attention—that she must employ all sorts of “strategies” to get the students to listen, even at the outset of the lesson. But what if it could be assumed? What if our society understood it not only as a courtesy, but also as a foundation for learning and creativity?
A student who listens (and who doesn’t disrupt class) is building intellectual patience and flexibility. The teacher, for her own part, has room to introduce complex topics without rushing to quick conclusions. In addition, she has room to listen to the students and draw out their ideas.
Such listening also allows teachers and students their flaws and strengths. A lesson should not be sloppy—but an imperfection need not tip the room into chaos. To listen to another is to allow for foibles, both in the speaker and in oneself.
In listening there is an underlying dignity. I listen to you because you don’t have to prove yourself worthy, nor do I. Listening, like all attention, is imperfect; we rarely take in fully what we hear. We often don’t have time or energy to listen to others—so those places of listening, such as the classroom, need honor and protection.
My most exhausting days of teaching (since I began in the public schools in 2005) were not the longest days, or the days with the most work, but rather the days when I couldn’t finish a sentence because of the interruptions. The breaking of the sentences left me, well, not quite broken, but more like a creaky house, where every step causes a plank to groan.
It takes years to build listening. It starts in the cradle, when we first listen to stories and start noticing their patterns and rhythms. Later we learn to listen to things that (unfortunately) don’t have much of a lilt. Listening isn’t always beneficial; sometimes one has to stop listening, for one’s own good and that of others. There are rants and bad songs that I really don’t need in my mind—but there are also things that surprise me (in both directions).
Students will challenge authority, no matter what, but there’s more for them to challenge if they know what the lesson holds. The most serious challenges come from students who have been listening; these challenges enrich the lesson and the course.
How great it would be if teachers and students could assume a certain level of listening, instead of having to earn it. What calm and liveliness this would bring to the work. The teacher’s separate life would have inherent protection, since the classroom, being intact, would have its beginning and end.
Note: I temporarily deleted this post and then restored it (with two minor edits). I apologize for any confusion.