I had an unusually chaotic, frustrating, but strangely hopeful day. Teachers are like jugglers, we train and learn and gradually increase the number of balls we can keep in the air. Today, I exceeded my limit — just too many big, medium and small tasks for a someone whose comfort zone is “one thing at a time.” Like the juggler, when my limit exceeded my ability, not one, but all the balls hit the floor.
I can accept that I’m not able to do some things very well — I’ve managed to avoid a large number of these (having a generous and talented wife helps me get away with it). What I hate is doing things badly. I felt that today. I know some of my teaching was not too great and that I had a student who needed and wanted help who got lost in the shuffle. That makes me feel lousy.
But then, amidst the chaos, I had two separate, brief encounters with students whose names I do not know that affected me and have given me hope and maybe even some insight. First, in my tutoring section, which consists of students with grades just above or just below the failing line, I compressed much of a two-class-period lecture into a desperate 10 minute guerilla cram before tomorrow’s Biology Quiz. I made some offhand comment about that not being any way to teach when this interesting, but edgy, young woman said, “Yeah, but you’re good at it.” If you’ve ever taught, you know how rare that kind of casual generosity is. She unknowingly brought me back to life. Next, after school I wandered into the library looking for a colleague when I encountered a student needing help in the class I teach (but not my section). For a brief period of maybe 7 or 8 minutes, he totally, completely, perfectly listened, trusted and learned. I have not witnessed an effort like that from any student (including the best students in the school that I’m lucky enough to teach) in a very long time. These two encounters, both with students who would be considered marginal, at best, were what I think teachers are looking for. I know it’s what I’m looking for. I don’t think the teacher-haters have any idea how much we want authentic teacher/student experiences and what we would be willing to do for students who really desire to learn. We don’t only care about highly-talented, well-dressed, polite kids who comfortably resemble who we think we are — we want students to learn. So much of the know-it-all propaganda of the how-to-fix-education industry talks about motivating students as if were making adjustments on a passive doo-dad. In addition to being completely wrong, this diminishes the students who are, after all, human beings with free will.
My version of reality until further notice is this — teaching and learning requires the following from both parties: Valuing what is being transferred, respecting one another as human beings, reaching out before knowing your efforts will be reciprocated, and a sacrifice of time and energy.
While I can’t prove it, I believe my two brief encounters were gifts of grace and beauty from God. I think I’m a little different teacher than I was when I woke up this morning. Tomorrow, I’m going to figure out those two kids’ names.