My students have filtered into my classroom the past few days, taking to their seats, reciting timelines and catechisms and poetry, curling their cursive penmanship with care, discussing metaphors and analogies, writing narratives and character analyses. I am showing them how to look for the obstacles a character faces in a story and how they overcome or learn from their mistakes, from their circumstances. I teach them how to look for virtue and universal truth.
I had to teach.
I knew I would never play college ball of any kind or be proficient in playing an instrument. I had invested hours, days, weeks, long years into both, but I knew that instead of living my life in a studio, a gym, or an auditorium, I was being pulled into the classroom. I also knew that I could not split my time between all things and do any of them justice. Those experiences of sport and music (along with writing and language and prose), were a trifecta that built this calling in me. From them I learned singular dedication to a vocation. Teaching was not just something I thought I’d be good at, and it most certainly wasn’t for the salary. It was something visceral.
There are two things in my life that I remember very vividly, very clearly, about what I knew I would definitively do when I “grew up”. Despite all the reasons why those two things might not have happened, for there were significant years in my life that I questioned whether they would be realized, they would never leave my insides. The first recognition took place when I was in second grade and I told my desk mate, Marci, that I was going to be a writer. The second was when I was in eleventh grade, and I realized that I had to be a teacher. Each of those callings have latched onto me and then eluded me over years before they began to bloom. They are each often like a ghost, a mystery I’m trying to catch up with. But that is the way of things when you are passionate about them. You must chase it through obstacle and hurdle, because the pain of not pursuing it is worse than the obstructions encountered. Believe me, I’ve tried to give up both in my past and it hurt.
Teaching is a strange profession. It is one that takes all of you, strips you down, and requires all the small and big parts of you. It is more than just a dedication to your profession or craft. You become entirely vulnerable to others, as it isn’t just your fellow colleagues that command changes in your work. Young people unknowingly (and sometimes knowingly) hold up a mirror to your weaknesses. Intellect and knowledge must be deep, yes, but your soul is also required as you pour into students to survive, or you won’t last long. Without the desire to inspire a generation, a teacher is merely a container of facts that a student may find on their own from reading a book or googling online. To teach, you must maintain a strong presence of mind and ability to relate to your students while staying a healthy distance from them so they may gain what they need and move on.
It is a profession and parenting wrapped up into one, but for hundreds of youth. And most days you feel as if you are behind or failing, until those pockets, those moments that you aren’t, and you see inspiration and triumph in the face of a student. That is the moment you smile to yourself, and you are thankful for the gift of observing another developing person.
All teachers, every one, can tell you that they became a teacher because of a teacher they had. It’s part of the comradeship of the profession. In college, you share about the teachers that built you, like being assembled or constructed brick by brick by a coach or a priest, a mentor or a parent. It is someone (or a collection of “someones” if you are as lucky as I was) who pour into you and make you realize how blessed you are, how hard you must work, what a gift you’ve been handed to nurture, and how to look outside yourself to those around you and reach out to touch them with it. It involves passing on a mentality.
Teaching is like holding the key to the secret garden or the location of the fountain of youth, and for those that seek it out, you eagerly pass them the key and it multiples. The key and the desire. It is not just about vocabulary or grammar drills, cold facts and dates. These must be learned and drilled, just like practicing scales on piano keys over and over until they are mechanically perfect and second nature. Without the drills and the knowledge, a student doesn’t have the foundation on which to build. But it is the lesson within the drills that composes and forms the structure. All those little things one learns about themselves as they go. A teacher sheds light on that process.
When I was eighteen I scribbled in an entire, fat notebook about the strengths of every girl on my varsity basketball team my senior season. I was the benchwarmer, a proud one at that, because while I was fairly athletic and competitive, it was not a sport that I had dedicated my youth to. I was proud because I could watch these women and our coach, observe them in the locker room, see them frustrated and joyful, selfish and selfless, sweating and crying and commanding the ball, because it was a gift to be given a pass into that inner world.
Since forever, I have loved watching and observing others, trying to glean and see them for who they are, all those little things that no one else pays attention to. Listening and believing the good that was deep down, among the weeds, because we all have weeds that need to be pulled and overcome. There were times I would look only at the weeds initially, in myself and in others, but then I would feel this weight in my insides that told me to stop and look, and wait for the tree to grow up from the tangle, even if that meant that sometimes I had to water the seeds. So, I would observe classmates, coaches, my friends’ parents, my own parents, my aunts and uncles, teammates, professors, my bosses, coworkers, those I sat with in church, my spouse, my children. Eventually, one must also observe themselves honestly as well. Teachers must become masters of slight facial expressions, tone of voice, recognizing tears that have not fallen but are soon to, responses to peers that are laden with an underlying meaning, and the myriad variation in these nonverbal communications in each individual. Then they must become masters at gentle confrontation, versus avoidance. They must become masters at listening, sometimes silently. They must gently or firmly redirect without crushing. They must encourage without being trite. They must admit mistakes while they share dreams. So not only are teachers masters of subject knowledge in their discipline or specialty, they become adept at reading people and displaying the value of deficiencies, setting aside one’s pride with intention, to ultimately become great at what they do.
This is the key to teaching, I believe. The messy, loud, extravagant way that we all learn is by trial and error. Vygotsky wrote about this very thing as he also carefully observed young children, and adults know this to be true, as much as we dislike the process. At some point in adolescence we all become acutely aware of everyone around us, watching us, as we attempt to learn something and instantly want to hide our failures, eliminate and erase any missteps. But in elimination, we sacrifice what we most desire: mastery and a fulfilling joy. It is the teacher who shows a student that failure is the manure of growth. Ironically, it is also the teacher who must try and fail first, many times, and go through that pain of getting up and succeeding before they can honestly model it. This is the vulnerability of a teacher: showing others how to handle defeat or embarrassment with confidence and to later succeed with compassion and humility.
Once we all learn that, the only next step is to embrace what is difficult and unkempt before us and to slowly bring method to madness, order to chaos, because we know that it will set us apart for great things. There is the planting and watering of the seed, the cultivating of an environment, but there are also weeds to be pulled. To teach is to become a master at receiving, and then handing down, inspiration despite the failure.