Great teachers don’t give up on anyone

It’s nearly the end of the academic year and we are all exhausted – teachers, students, their parents, every member of the school staff. I am hoping that this post will give some sustenance to remind us why we do what we do.

Teaching is a vocation for which you must be well-trained and highly skilled. There are those that believe that it is also a calling. I certainly haven’t met a teacher who has stayed in the profession more than a couple of years who doesn’t feel a strong sense of moral purpose driving them.  I would go so far as to say that teaching can take you to a higher spiritual place of intense self-discovery and incredible connection with your students and your colleagues.

It can be increasingly difficult at times to connect to this moral purpose when the education system, indeed society as we know it, seems to be in immense pain. Writer and long-time teacher Parker Palmer writes in his 1983 book To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education:

“I call the pain that permeates education ‘the pain of disconnection.’ … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. We feel deep kinship with some subject; we want to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; we want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.”

Palmer’s solution is to turn to spirituality. His interpretation of spirituality however is different from religion or the ‘spirituality of ends’ or those that have been apparently hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging enquiry.  He says:

“A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviours of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes.

But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.”

As a teacher, it was important to me to try to connect, deeply and openly, with each of my students. I wanted to use my subject to awaken them spiritually, help them meet with their own struggles and triumphs not only through the subject but also through the very communal and simultaneously deeply personal business of learning. I wanted them to find the words to create an open dialogue about themselves as learners and to grow. I wanted this for myself too and felt that I was really living a deep spirituality through being a teacher. It was a magical time. It wasn’t easy but it was extremely rewarding and I still believe that it was the right attitude to have towards my teaching – aside from the fact that I couldn’t have done it any other way.

Ann Lammot in her book Stitches, a Handbook of Meaning Hope and Repair sums it up well when she says:

“To me, teaching is a holy calling, especially with students less likely to succeed. It’s the gift not only of not giving up on people, but of even figuring out where to begin.

You start wherever you can. You see a great need, so you thread a needle, you tie a knot in your thread. You find one place in the cloth through which to take one stitch, one simple stitch, nothing fancy, just one that’s strong and true. The knot will anchor your thread. Once that’s done, you take one more stitch — teach someone the alphabet, say, no matter how long that takes, and then how to read Dr. Seuss, and Charlotte’s Web, and A Wrinkle in Time, and then, while you’re at it, how to get a GED. Empathy is meaning.”

Giving up on people isn’t just about those that are less likely to succeed. I wanted to challenge myself to give as much attention, opportunity for growth and stretch to students that were successful academically as those that were struggling or indeed those pottering along in the middle. The quiet, well-behaved and high achieving students are often those we unwittingly give up on because they don’t seem to need much from us. At parents’ evenings, I would make sure I had identified and communicated a growth pointer for each and every student of mine that was possibly new to them or extending the boundaries of the usual academic commentary. I wanted them to find their bliss and connect to it wholeheartedly. I wanted them to know that their being seen as a success wasn’t dependent solely on their academic success. That’s a message usually reserved for the students that struggle but it is an equally important one for those that excel.

The very ‘Marmite’ educationalist Sir Ken Robinson speaks sense in my opinion of this ethos which is at the heart of his writing The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything . I think this is especially important when we are working with teenagers. It is such a time of confusion around identity and self-belief that connecting to your bliss and holding onto it can be a rudder in the choppy seas of teen-dom and adolescence. And we can model this and embody it through retaining a deep connection to our calling as teachers.

We need to be careful with this though and not confuse finding your strength and passion with simply making them the criteria for success. Among Robinson’s many observations is also one about our socially distorted metrics of achievement, in line with Alain de Botton’s words of caution about ‘success‘:

“It’s not enough to be good at something to be in your element…We’re being brought up with this idea that life is linear. This is an idea that’s perpetuated when you come to write your CV — that you set out your life in a series of dates and achievements, in a linear way, as if your whole existence has progressed in an ordered, structured way, to bring you to this current interview.”

He also says:

“One of the interesting things about success is that we think we know what it means. A lot of the time our ideas about what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They’re sucked in from other people. And we also suck in messages from everything from the television to advertising to marketing, etcetera. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. What I want to argue for is not that we should give up on our ideas of success, but that we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we’re truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of the journey that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along.”

This calling, this spiritual connection to our vocation as teachers is reflected in  the Reverend Victoria Safford’s beautiful essay titled “The Small Work in the Great Work” from The Impossible Will Take a Little While: Perseverance and Hope in Troubled Times. This is a stunning collection of reflections by wise sages such as Pablo Neruda, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker and Nelson Mandela. It is named after Billie Holiday’s famous song lyric, “The difficult I’ll do right now. The impossible will take a little while.”

Safford says:

“We stand where we will stand, on little plots of ground, where we are maybe “called” to stand (though who knows what that means?) — in our congregations, classrooms, offices, factories, in fields of lettuces and apricots, in hospitals, in prisons (on both sides, at various times, of the gates), in streets, in community groups. And it is sacred ground if we would honour it, if we would bring to it a blessing of sacrifice and risk…

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.”

This I believe is our calling, and it is our duty to continue right until the end of the academic year and into the next and so on for as long as we have decided that we will not give up on anyone.

I am indebted to the incredible research, writing and newsletters of Maria Popova and her Brain Pickings for this post. If you would like to subscribe to these please visit the Brain Pickings website HERE

 

 

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3 thoughts on “Great teachers don’t give up on anyone

  1. I totally agree! A sabbatical year could work out fantastically for both teacher and school. The teacher would be able to pursue meaningful CPD right for their stage of development, and may actually return with a broader skills set, renewed motivation and a deeper knowledge/insight into a particular area which could impact positively back in school. I wonder how many schools offer sabbatical years as part of their CPD programme? Is it more typical in high school?

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