I am a teacher whose resumé should open up with Johnny Cash singing, “I’ve been everywhere, man… I’ve been everywhere…”
I’ve taught every grade level from preschool through eighth grade. I’ve taught in inner city, urban, and rural schools. I’ve taught “regular” as well as “gifted” education.
I’ve taught in public schools, districts both large and small; I’ve taught in private schools: early childhood, Catholic, and classical. Teaching the gifted level in elementary is what gave me most of my breadth, but however you slice it, I’ve seen a lot.
When I started to teach, I did it because it was fun. I still do—in fact, I believe that teachers who are not having fun should leave the profession. Teaching is both a science and an art, and when we find that our hearts are no longer singing, we owe it to both ourselves and the children to find the song again, or get out.
Children deserve a teacher whose heart is aflame.
The axis on which my whole life revolves is wonderment. Being a part of the relationship between teacher, child and the world is a particularly potent and heady way for me to chase that wonderment.
I believe that though the world is broken, beauty is the only pursuit—and it can be found everywhere in this world. My students and I chase the good, true, and beautiful through literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology, science and the arts.
When teachers experience the ‘aha’ moment with a child, it is both prismatic and full of a saturation that is somehow sweet, savory and full of deepest color. It is a health and a sustenance that my heart needs, that all our hearts need. To journey with children through those first moments of seeing so much good, truth and beauty is a privilege beyond all others.
The most important thing in teaching isn’t even the material at hand.
It is the relationship between the teacher and the child. Both through experience and through studies, I know that when there is trust, a sharing between child and teacher is the optimal way for learning to happen. The best is when this turns into a relationship like the apprenticeships of the Middle Ages: a sharing of life. Dare I say that it is a kind of love? The learning goes both ways. The best teachers are always learning from their students.
I love teaching, but I hate education.
Lately, I have felt that I am standing outside my profession and yelling at it. I am yelling because it falls short of the beauty that is its birthright. In both public and private, in all grade levels, in inner city and classical, it seems that most of the educational “machine” has become just that: a machine.
Much of the educational machine falls short of beauty because it doesn’t know why it exists: are we here to give the world academics, or vocational training? We did no favor to the world when we tried to fuse those two things.
But the common rub between all schools of all types seems to me to be that the people who hold the money make the decisions—whether it is national or state legislators, or the millionaire board members sitting down the pew from you in church. The people who hold the money are never the teachers, and when teachers have no voice, the quest for the good, true, and the beautiful will fall flat.
It becomes a machine, and I have seen this from all vantage points.
From all vantage points, I have also seen the most important thing. In all schools, all situations, I see the love. I see teachers and students who dare to trust, support, and enjoy each other, to learn from one another, to enter into a type of apprenticeship, a sharing of life—a love.
Last year, I had the joy and travail of teaching a class of four-almost-five year olds. The great and difficult thing about this age is that the borders between imagination and reality aren’t even roughed in yet. It would be as fair to say that I taught a class comprised of Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man, Thor, Wolfgirl and Mario, as it would be to say that I taught children. Because they were superheroes. Every day. All day long.
During rest time, I was patting the back of one of my superhero boys. He was abused as a very young child, and came to his family first as a foster child, before he was adopted. I rejoiced in his escape from unutterable evil: but what remained was lack of trust, the need for constancy, and the need to have love proved to him again and again.
It’s always these children who drive you the craziest.
They drive you to Tylenol, to carbs, to Friday afternoon “Book Club” with the other teachers at the pub. These ones burrow their way deepest into a teacher’s heart. It hurts so bad, but you know you want them there. They need it, you need it.
As I was patting his back, I said to him: “Do you know what this means?”
“In sign language, this means love. If you ever see me doing this, it means that I love you.”
He said: “Yeah. But if you hold it like this:”
“It means web-shooters.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Yes, it does!” I said.
“This means love, and this means web-shooters. And both of those are pretty great.”
He said, “Yeah.”
And my heart, oh my burrowed-in heart!
It was so full, because I knew that both of us had said the most important things that we knew, the only things worth saying.
Because he was Spiderman. And I am love.
My tired heart has to remember its song: that from every vantage point, in every school, every day there are conversations like this between children and their teachers.
There is the work to trust, support, share, and love.
And that, more than anything, is an occasion for wonderment.
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Assist Ed. Bronwyn Petry/Ed: Sara Crolick