Notes for teachers

I always get a little sentimental this time of year, autumn and back-to-school time. It seems like a fresh beginning. But this year, that sentiment is bittersweet, after the near-death blow the plunging state budget dealt to education at all levels. The sad thing is, education seems always to be on the short end of the spending curve in this state, even in good times. And, speaking as a long-time educator, this lack of consistent support is pretty demoralizing. So today, I thought I would send out a boost to all my colleagues in the classroom, and to all the young folks out there contemplating a career in education.

We teachers labor almost entirely on hope and faith. We write our syllabi, plan our lessons, and grade students’ work on the hope and faith that somewhere, something that we say will reach into the minds of our charges and light a spark. Many of us carry on in this labor in the face of fairly consistent evidence that our hope and faith is unjustified. Each semester we feel energized at the beginning, but our energy saps as student papers and exams return mediocre results. Oh yes, of course, there are some who shine. But how many actually latch on to the things we say and run with them?

It may—probably does—happen far more than we know. Months later the former student has an “aha!” moment. But we almost never know about that. Sometimes, a student will come back and thank us but far more carry on in the world, and we carry on in our classrooms, ignorant of the real impact that we have. And that impact is often the result of something fleeting—a chance comment or serendipitous connection that may be quite different from the main points, concepts or skills we thought we were teaching. Regardless of how thoughtfully or carefully we build our courses, what emerges from our work is highly unpredictable, tangential and circumstantial—because it is always contingent on the minds and hearts of the students we teach, and their experiences, their worlds.

So I am tremendously grateful for the occasional opportunity to witness a spark that fanned into a fire in my own students’ work. It is a rare gift, as a teacher, to experience the affirmation of that hope and faith in such a dramatic way. It is important to recognize those moments because they show that what we as teachers do matters immensely. We do not often get to see it—in fact, normally don’t. And we live in a country with a strong anti-intellectual streak, and a state within that country whose governor openly and offensively demeans and diminishes the work of educators. With so little evidence of the success of our labor, and so much evidence of the disdain of our society, being a teacher can be a pretty depressing career. I hope you can take these words and remind yourselves of the absolutely wonderful parts of our work, the essential, if always maddeningly unpredictable and tangential nature of this labor, and celebrate it.