This is why I teach. Still. Even when I didn’t want to.
One of my friends, Sarah, recommended that today I drink a very special beer that she brews occasionally, the Flannery Pecan Pie, to commemorate the anniversary of Flannery O’Connor‘s death. The beer is named after O’Connor, who lived relatively close to me (by relative I mean in the same state).
So I did.
I’m a fan of the beer, and a fan of O’Connor, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. I mean, for the beer, yes, because it’s tasty, but O’Connor — I appreciate her stories, but I don’t love them.
I’ve taught her stories for years, decades, actually, but I’ve never really enjoyed it. Not like I’ve enjoyed teaching other things. It seems that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is in every anthology I’ve ever used, and so it goes that I assign it.
And then the fun begins. By fun I mean anxiety. Some of the language and situations makes my students uncomfortable, which in turn makes me uncomfortable. Am I a victim of political correctness? Not in this instance. I just know my audience, and I choose my topics seriously. I’ll teach it a term, just to see and test the waters, and usually, I’m left feeling like I pushed some buttons for no good reason.
O’Connor gives me insight into this phenomenon
All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.
This is why I’m a fan of hers, and why it makes it difficult to teach. Too often, I encounter students whose lives are hard, hopeless, and brutal. To bring fiction into the picture seems to add salt to their wounds. After all, we are all fighting our own demons.
Her observation on the situation rings so terribly true today:
At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.
My task, to expose these things, discuss them, deconstruct them, and try to wrench hope out of them…usually ends in…not what I hoped for. I strive to take the despair and channel it into something else, something positive. It’s hit or miss.
But it’s time to teach it again. We live in perilous times. I don’t spare my students anything by not helping them face the indignity of the assaults against us, whether it’s from language intended to demean, or some of the terrifying assaults against our faith.
The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.
I had a conversation with a friend at work about finding bliss at the intersection of vocation and avocation. She observed that bliss and bless sound an awful lot alike. So I’ve been thinking about what blesses me in my work as I ponder pulling the trigger on some things…
I need a new suit.
It’s fall. Again.
By fall I mean we’re back to school even though it’s still August and there’s plenty of summer left. The new school year seems to start earlier and earlier. That’s probably because it’s still August.
When I was a kid, by the middle of summer I secretly wished school would hurry up and start.
That hasn’t changed much. Now that I’m on the other side of that desk, I still look forward to the beginning of the term.
There’s something about the fall term, more than spring or summer, that speaks to new beginnings. It’s an opportunity for a reboot, and truth be told, I can always use a reboot.
It’s an opportunity for discovery, too.
I love teaching because it puts me in the position of always learning. I’m not talking about the traditional sense of life-long learning, which we all should embrace, but in the practical honing of my skills. I learn how to be a better teacher by teaching.
I didn’t grasp this early in my career, probably because I was too green and insecure in my abilities to reveal those insecurities to my students. (To be honest, my greatest fear in the classroom, still, is to be discovered as a fraud).
So, I put on a persona of expertise and stood in front of the group and professed. I professed a lot. Lots and lots of lectures where I stood there and spoke my pearls of wisdom and my students took notes and then spat them back at me in various assessments. I was good, and they were good. But somehow, we weren’t good together.
So what changed?
Over time I became more comfortable with what I was doing. I discovered, a little bit at a time, that perhaps I was meant to be doing this. I lost the fear of being wrong or not having an answer, and shared that with my students. It occurred to me that they might know answers to things I didn’t know.
I gave myself permission to not know, and invited my students to fill in the blanks.
I took that risk to help them think for themselves. Too many years of spitting back facts clouded their ability to think critically. And then I thought, what if the problem is that they are afraid to think critically?
What if the problem lies in, not the cognitive domain, but in something else — their ability to recognize their worth. That they have something to say. I’ve tried, with varying levels of success, to help my students find their voices.
“Teaching, therefore, asks first of all the creation of a space where students and teachers can enter into a fearless communication with each other and allow their respective life experiences to be their primary and most valuable source of growth and maturation. It asks for a mutual trust in which those who teach and those who want to learn can become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who share in the same struggle and search for the same truth.”
I hope that’s the environment I create in my classrooms this term. A safe place to share and learn from each other. To do this, I have to share a little bit of myself, enter into a certain level of vulnerability — it won’t make me weak; it will make me strong.
There are fancy names for this…those of you who are teachers will recognize that what I’m talking about here is an engaged pedagogy — but the root of that is much deeper than an educational philosophy.
It comes from a Truth that I know — that I’ve always known and lived by, though God surely knows I haven’t always been able to articulate this, and it’s only by His grace that I haven’t messed it up too badly.
To reach my students I need to begin by acknowledging their fundamental dignity as human beings.
Too much of my job relegates students to data points. Measurable outcomes keep me employed, I suppose, but it’s the other thing, my vocation, that keeps me coming back every year.
It’s the knowledge that something great happens in the classroom, even if it’s not measurable. Even if it’s only a seed that I’ll never see germinate.
I’ll try to remember this as I begin a new term, and remind myself again and again … and again if I have to, when things get slow or difficult, that I am a teacher. That I have answered God’s call to this vocation and that it is my duty, the commitment I’ve made, to serve God by serving my students. That I am called to love them.
So classes begin tomorrow. I’m gathering my things and putting them in my briefcase. You know, so I’m ready to go first thing in the morning.
No one takes a picture of me on the first day of school anymore, but I might get into the spirit of it and take a selfie.
On second thought, NO.
But here’s what’s going into the ol’ briefcase:
1. A couple of Expo markers, black. I might throw in red and green in case I get inspired to draw a flower or something.
2. A couple of #2 pencils, and my favorite blue black Uni-Ball Vision Elite medium point pen. Yes, I am that precise when it comes to what kind of pen I like. It’s not OCD; it’s arthritic hands. Ok, and a little bit of OCD.
3. A small notebook. Because I never know when the next idea for a novel might inspire me.
4. My laptop, ipad, iphone, and all the accompanying chargers. Yes. I actually teach with those items. Really.
5. A rosary. Boy do I need to take a break with Mama Mary. The day hasn’t started and I already know this.
6. The coin you see pictured above, though not in the briefcase — more than likely in my pocket. It’s St. Gabriel. Why not St. Francis de Sales patron of teachers and writers, or perhaps St. John Baptist de La Salle not just patron of teachers, but Father of Modern Education (and trade schools!)? Nope. I have St. Gabriel because I have a big fat mouth and I am totally aware of how I am in the position to escalate or de-escalate just about anything that can happen in a classroom. Don’t believe that? Let me introduce you to Antionette Tuff.
Here’s what it says:
Oh dear Gabriel, Help us to be diplomatic and watch over us, as you did with Christ; give us the strength to reason and the humility to listen.
I often forget that listening is more than taking in words — it’s also being present to the person saying them, and hearing the words that weren’t spoken.
Have a great school year all you teachers and students! God bless us all!
I’ve missed my laptop.
I know, such a pathetic thing to say, but there you have it.
I suppose there’s some redeeming thing to say about not being materialistic — you know, the importance of detachment and all that.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s true: the world got on just fine without my laptop distracting me. I wish I could have said that I went totally offline, but I had my phone and an iPad. And this antique HP pc that weighs about 20 pounds and works just fine. I was just spoiled by my light little macbook.
I missed changing the color of fonts. I missed the ease of posting here with access to my pictures. I missed the keypad for my biggish hands (no, I don’t have man -hands, thankyouverymuch).
This electronic object is more than a little toy for posting on Twitter and Facebook, though it does get a lot of action that way. It’s also a tool for communication and for work. If nothing else, this month long absence showed me how much I rely on it to do a multitude of things. I learned the limits of the other, smaller devices, but also discovered that they are, in some respects, more useful and practical than the big daddy for some things.
I think that I’ve picked up some new, hopefully better, habits by not having a laptop open all the time.
In the meantime, I’m going to love him, and squeeze him, and kiss him, and call him George.