“A Teacher’s major contribution may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-students grandchild. A teacher, finally, has nothing to go on but faith, a student nothing to offer in return but testimony.”
– Wendell Barry
Here it is. Another school year. A fresh start. New students; a re-commitment to why you chose this profession or rather why this profession chose you. You are who you are because of how you are made. You are the human symbol of compassion and (mostly) patience. You give more than you receive on so many different levels. And you care deeply—at times more that you would like—for the children you call your own over the course of 185 days. The world outside of your uniquely constructed classroom sees just the outside of you, the teacher appearance of what you represent. Parents at back to school night admire your organization, presentation, bulletin board, and careful way you write their child’s name on their desk. Most parents appreciate all you do, but they don’t know all you do and really you can’t expect them to. The truth is, as parents, we take you for granted and sometimes I think you feel this. You’re okay with that though, it’s all part of the selfless act of love that you factor into the profession that chose you. Often times, you wonder how you get it all done. And many times you ask yourself if this was the right choice. Between changes in curriculum, a possible grade switch next year, another student with an IEP, observations, and oh yes, the content that somehow you hope sinks into the 18 pairs of eyes who are supposed to be engaged while you are teaching.
You are teaching in a age right now that undermines the origins and roots of what education was founded upon. Your task is great, but your heart is greater so it all works out. I write you this letter on behalf of so many parents who DO understand what you are up against. 2500 years ago, the ancient Greeks saw the true value in teaching from the inside-out. This approach, referred to as the Socratic method or the dialectic approach, was guided by the inquisitiveness of the learner. The teacher as the facilitator; the student as the guide. The inner workings of that student expressed himself freely because he was encouraged and permitted. This is the entity of mindfulness! The script of curriculum, the same 3 questions asked per lesson, and standardized tests were far off in the distant future. Enough was presented through the eyes of the learner that could fill a teacher’s planner for an entire lifetime. And the teacher was allowed to be attended (mindful and present) to what that child craved and needed most.
The kids aren’t ignorant of what they’re missing out on in the classroom. They know and feel that this process of learning is unnatural because simply, it feels that way to them. As an educational culture, we have shifted the process of learning to that of an “outside-in” approach. You, the teacher learn the curriculum at a workshop over a few days. You then do a wonderful job engaging the learner through a variety of techniques and the use of manipulatives that you see fit. But the end goal is still the delivering of content, the pouring in, the “making sure they get it approach as it is scripted”. This goes against the grain of just about every learner and frankly probably also most teachers. Am I being too critical? Maybe, but do teachers deserve to be validated and recognized for what they are up against? Absolutely.
One thing I learned early on in my years of parenting is that even though my children may have come from me and we share the same DNA, it’s really of no importance when it comes to the inner-workings of who they really are! I grew up riding horses and competing, and I loved it. I identified with all things equestrian. I couldn’t wait to get out of school so I could walk a quarter mile to the stable where I took lessons and boarded my horse. I loved the smells, I loved the brushing, the riding, the dust-filled air, the sounds, and the quiet. It was everything a classic introvert craved. I was me when I was at Stepping Stone Farm. So many years later, I thought it would be fun to introduce my 6 year old to the world of horses. It didn’t take much to convince her it would be a good time. Little girls plus horses go together like peas and carrots. The first few lessons were fine, but in time, I realized that I was the one wanting this for her. She really had no interest and I finally learned to pull the plug when she rode by trotting while she rolled her eyes at me. A piece of me was sad, but another piece of me celebrated her authenticity and ability to own the fact that she did not like this at all. Today, at age 10, she’s a knock-out surfer, a fierce soccer player, and her social calendar is busier than mine. True extrovert, nothing like me and I wouldn’t change a thing! I share this story because it reminds me that we must begin to honor the child in a way that respects how they were made. Too often I hear parents say, “He’s just like me because…” Is he really or is it you wanting your child to have that same trait. Kids believe what they receive and so many of them are receiving the same content in the classrooms in the same way.
How is this affecting them? To put it plainly and to call a spade a spade, I think we are disservicing them for years to come. It’s our job as parents and educators to be mindful of the child placed in our rooms and our lives. YOU were chosen for that child by an act of faith. YOU are entrusted to decide to be an honoring part to their life or a dismissive run-of-the-mill teacher in their life. You can all remember the handful of students who had an impact on you. What about the students out there who will recall a certain teacher recognizing them for them.
I remember my third grade teacher—Mrs. J.—fondly. What do I remember most about her? I remember her eyes. They were blue and wide and her eyes listened to me. I remember her walk, she almost floated around the room, like she knew intuitively which child needed her at the exact right moment. Upon reflection, she represented mindfulness without even realizing it. She was living it and it had a profound impact on me as a learner. I struggled with math, the times tables were frustrating, I was quiet and constantly afraid she would call on me to read aloud. She spent alone time with me often to go over those darn 7 facts and she rarely called on me to read in order to save me the embarrassment of flushed cheeks and a racing heart. She felt me, she felt all of us on a resonant level. She was living and teaching behind the pouring in of content. Most importantly, she was present.
Teachers, you are up against a lot and even though I am a former teacher, I’m not sure I could go back with the awareness of the current state of the education system. I simply want to encourage all of you that you are where you need to be at such a time as this. Our world needs teachers who are mindful and present more than ever. Continue to do the best you can with the limit of creativity that you are allowed. Instead, I challenge you to connect with your students personally each day. Ask a question, put your hand on their shoulder, commend them even when you have to search for a praise. You will be remembered so much more beyond the standardized testing preparations. You will be cemented into their mind as foundational to the development of their character. And someday down the road, they will refer to you as their Mrs. J!