Teaching, Reserve, and Listening

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.

Teaching the Underground

undergroundOne aspect of teaching that rarely gets discussed (on blogs and in education news) is the intellectual and ethical challenge of taking students through a complex work like Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. I find myself turning lessons in my mind, asking myself what to bring out, what questions to ask, what background to provide, what comparisons to draw. This would be the case with just about any lesson—but with Notes from Underground it’s particularly important, as the work is easy to misunderstand in one way or another. Once the basic understanding is there, it’s possible to appreciate the work’s paradox and play on the one hand and its serious moral questions on the other.

Its narrator and protagonist, the “Underground Man,” lives alone in a dingy Petersburg apartment, from which he does not emerge. He writes and writes, in some sense baring his starkest truths, in some sense fooling the reader. He rails against the formulas that others embrace, formulas for a perfect society or even a reasonable one. No perfection, no happiness, he insists, matters as much to man as his own free will—and for that reason he will knock down any structure and deny any equation, even if in doing so he only harms himself. The Underground Man seems to rebel against formulas and final answers, yet he clings to his own formula, a formula of negation. In the second part, we learn how he landed there; we learn something about his life and actions before his retreat. (I won’t reveal what he tells—but it isn’t comforting.)

A reader of Notes from Underground can easily fall into one of two traps. One error is to judge him without any kind of compassion or identification—to say, “I’m not like that; that man is messed up” and be done with it. The other is to identify with him completely—to see him as a reflection of the hidden self. While this error is a bit more fruitful than the first, it’s still an error, if the reader does not recognize the Underground Man’s responsibility for his condition. To grasp the Underground Man, one must bring both compassion and judgment, both identification and distance. The proportions are difficult to determine (and will vary from person to person and from reading to reading), but both elements need to be there, if the work is to come through. (Other elements need to be there as well; one needs to be able to hear his tones, jokes, allusions, and much more.)

Isn’t that one of our ethical challenges in general—to determine the right mixture of judgment and compassion? Too much judgment without compassion, and you write the person (or work) off. Too much compassion (if that’s the word—I’m not quite satisfied) without judgment, and you neglect the person’s free will and choices. Yet there is no perfect ratio; it shifts from moment to moment and from situation to situation. Nor can it be calculated; one must find it through experience, teachers, and instinct.

From what I have seen, it is more common for students to write the Underground Man off than to see themselves in him. This is partly because introspection gets short shrift today. These kids have been brought up to think in terms of success and achievement, not in terms of understanding human nature. That’s an oversimplification, though; many do understand something of the Underground Man; many do see aspects of themselves, and a few have even found a combination of judgment and compassion. In any case, both extremes have dangers.

The first time I read Notes from Underground, at age eighteen, I couldn’t separate myself from him (until part 2). I thought I was him—and was horrified. Years later, I approached him from a distance and found him very funny. In between, I have had mixtures of responses. Today I see a great deal of the Underground Man in myself but understand, also, how important the differences are. I am not advocating “text-to-self connections”—but Dostoevsky clearly wants us to ask who this Underground Man is and how he might reflect us.

There’s a lot at stake in reading Notes from Underground properly, yet there is no “proper” reading. There is only alertness and avoidance of pitfalls. Or, rather, there’s much more, but it can’t be taught directly, just as one can’t be taught to understand another person.

These are the thoughts that occupy a good deal of my day, when I’m not scrambling to get things done. It matters to teach this work well; that, in turn, is not just a question of bringing out key themes, devices, etc., but involves careful reading, a good understanding of the students, an understanding (when possible) of the original Russian, and a strong ethical and aesthetic sense. It involves a great responsibility: you have to be a good guide to take students into the underground and out again. In short, it requires a good chunk of all that I have and am—including the ability to put myself aside as we focus on the work.

I wish policymakers (of various kinds) had an inkling of this aspect of teaching. It seems completely forgotten, except in nooks of the education world. It’s as though “content” didn’t demand one’s soul, intellect, and conscience, as though you could teach it “effectively” without vitality. No wonder so much work gets piled on teachers; few realize that to teach well, one must be willing to leave the busyness behind, to take a long walk, attend a concert*, or read a book slowly, in order to be shaken into life, the life inside and outside of books, the jumbled, mistake-ridden life that, even at its most perplexing, has room for courage and grace.

*Concert: On Friday I attended the Wingdale Community Singers’ record release show for their new album, Night Sleep Death. A gorgeous performance. The title(-ish) song brings together two Walt Whitman poems, A Clear Midnight” and “O Living Always–Always Dying.”