to be, or not to be

One of the more difficult aspects of the teaching profession occurs after the courses are finished, the grades are submitted, and the euphoria of not having any deadlines settles in. It doesn’t last long because invariably a whole new set of deadlines crop up, but the euphoria is short-lived, replaced by a brief period of introspection.

Did I do a good job? Did I reach enough students? Have I made a difference? Did I unwittingly break someone?

Perhaps I am the only one who has these self-doubts, but I suspect it’s more widespread; we’re just in a hurry out of the building and don’t sit around discussing our insecurities.

After all, it takes a great deal of ego to do what we do. I need to face a group of adults (several times a week) and speak with the voice of authority, sure that what I am communicating is true, authentic, and …  well … right.

It’s easy to do in the classrooms that come right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but the truth is that classrooms don’t look like that today. In fact, I’m cynical enough to believe those classrooms only existed in Rockwell’s paintings.

My reality is quite different.

My reality is filled with an astonishing collection of people from places that I cannot grasp, pursuing their own slice of the American pie.

After 25 years in the profession, I am still optimistic that there is enough pie to go around.

After 25 years in the profession, I am experienced enough to know that pie isn’t always good, or appropriate, or even useful.

The problem is arriving at that conclusion. I could never suggest to anyone that an education is out of reach. It runs against every fiber of my being. I serve the pie!

Still, I perform my job to the best of my abilities – some days very well, other days … I don’t know. I’ve heard teaching described as performance art – that’s a pretty good assessment. I don’t have many people asking for refunds, so I might be doing a fair job of it.

Anyway, I’ve lately suffered from more than the usual insecurities –so much so that I have questioned my career choice and whether it was time to try something else. The problem is that I don’t really want to do anything else, so I have to figure out what’s making me unhappy in the classroom.

I pulled out all the stops – rummaged through methodology texts, read crazy progressive articles on trending topics [one thing I can say about education is that if you wait a few years, everything will be recycled under a new name], read some of the dinosaurs in the profession.

I found my answer in the unlikeliest of places and could have face-palmed myself for not having gone there first…

St. Augustine of Hippo.

Now, I’ve often been amused by Augustine’s desire to be holy … but not quite yet. It figures I’d find him to be an interesting guy, but I was unprepared to have the answer to my dilemma laid out so nicely. You see, I teach Rhetoric, a fancy name for grammar, but it is much more. It is the art of human discourse.

I am steeped in human discourse. If you don’t believe me, visit my classroom.

Evidently, Augustine was steeped in human discourse, too. I admit that I am intrigued enough to study him some more. At any rate, he has just become my new patron saint because it seems he encountered the same challenges I face – more than 1500 years ago.

Ah. The more things change, the more they stay the same. If anything, we both work in the human condition. It turns out he also taught Rhetoric.  And developed a philosophy of education that mirrors the attitudes that I have pieced together over the years.

Don’t misunderstand me – I am not putting myself in Augustine’s … um … august … company. What I mean is that I have found illumination in his theory, and it has made all the difference.

First, he explains that there are three kinds of students:  1. Well-educated [a delight!] 2. Poorly-educated [ a challenge, but satisfying to teach] and 3. The poorly-educated who think they are brilliant [yes, he’s right—I see them all the time!]

This last group can make any teacher mad (in a clinically depressed way).  Those poor souls tax my last nerve, and they are numerous. Augustine has much to say about this last group, and it is here that I found consolation. He stressed the importance of teaching them the difference between having facts and having real knowledge.

To teach this 3rd category of student is truly a challenge. How does one teach someone to THINK? This is especially challenging in today’s world, where it seems like everyone is living in a heightened state of entitlement. The students who feel they deserve A’s because they exist fall into this phenomenon.

Augustine says these students must be helped to discover what they don’t know. Ha! Evidently I am good at that. He calls it the restrained style of teaching. Who knew what I was practicing was restraint?

Augustine also had some interesting things to say about teaching styles, and I have found myself following those, too. In one style he advocates using a lofty approach to find the beauty in knowledge for the sheer beauty of it, and in another he advocates a less showy appeal to passion/ I’m no St. Augustine (well, maybe in the sinner part) but I have found great consolation in his theories. If I’m going to revamp my approach in the classroom, I couldn’t have found a better and more timely model.