I credit my education to Ms. Mabel Hefty just as much as I would any institution of higher learning.
By President Barack Obama
When I entered Ms. Hefty’s fifth-grade class at Punahou School in the fall of 1971, I was just a kid with a funny name in a new school, feeling a little out of place, hoping to fit in like anyone else.
The first time she called on me, I wished she hadn’t. In fact, I wished I were just about anywhere else but at that desk, in that room of children staring at me.
But over the course of that year, Ms. Hefty taught me that I had something to say — not in spite of my differences, but because of them. She made every single student in that class feel special.
And she reinforced that essential value of empathy that my mother and my grandparents had taught me. That is something that I carry with me every day as President.
This is the simple and undeniable power of a good teacher. This is a story that every single kid in this country, regardless of background or station in life, should be able to tell. Sharing stories like these helps underline the vital importance of fighting for that reality.
Today, I’ll honor Shanna Peeples as the 2015 National Teacher of the Year — and I’d like you to share which teacher, like Ms. Hefty, helped shape your education. You can do that here, or by using the hashtag #ThankATeacheronline.
Tomorrow, I’ll travel to a local library that serves as a hub of learning in the Anacostia community of Washington, D.C. America’s librarians, like our teachers, connect us to books and learning resources that help us dream big. They help ensure that we continue learning throughout our lifetime. And that’s something that more kids ought to be able to access.
So while I’m at the library, I’ll announce new efforts to provide popular books to millions of underprivileged children and young adults around the country and connect more students to their local libraries — because we know that reading just 20 minutes a day can make a tremendous difference in a student’s success. Online, I want you to join the conversation by sharing which book was critical to making you who you are today using the hashtag#BooksForAll. (We all have one.)
And on Friday, as I work on the commencement address I’ll deliver at South Dakota’s Lake Area Technical Institute next Friday, I want you to share with me how far community college has taken you. For a number of folks on our staff here, it’s taken them all the way to the White House.
This week, we’re focusing on those fundamental people, places, and stories that made us who we are today. So whether it’s a teacher who inspired you, a book that changed you, or a college that shaped you — I want to hear from you. We’ll be responding to and sharing your responses all week long.
In a creative mind, something as seemingly small as a speckled seashell or brightly colored butterfly can inspire a fashion season’s worth of fabric patterns. A sea sponge’s form can give rise to an über modern lampshade, while a skeleton’s bones can inform a modern jewelry piece. And the structure of a beetle’s wings can spark everything from the shape and motion of a daringly sleek car door to the way a pair of pantyhose is folded and packaged.
That sort of organically inspired thinking is at the heart of the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, a charming and quite quirky, hands-on natural history collection and studio space at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Part museum, part lending library, and all classroom, the lab features an estimated 100,000 specimens from each of the five scientific kingdoms (most of which visitors are encouraged to poke, prod, and even take home). It has served as a source of biomimetic stimuli for RISD students and faculty across disciplines for decades, as well as a forum for exploring the often subtle connections among man, nature, art, and design.
From the moment one enters the Nature Lab, which exists in two floors of RISD’s Waterman Building (notably, the first structure constructed by the school in 1893), it’s clear you’re in a very special place. From taxidermy creatures like puffer fish and birds floating overhead to a live turtle crawling on the creaky, dark wood floor at your feet—not to mention the thousands of specimens in the Victorian era cabinetry covering the walls—the lab is brimming with life. And those are just the permanent tenants. Over the course of one recent visit, the Nature Lab hosted students sketching samples, masters level microscopic research, a tutorial on scientific poster presentations, plus work scholars pinning recent findings for the bug collection and undertaking a spider sample repair; in short, the lab space is in high demand.
There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.
The Nature Lab is a rare and seamless combination of the historical and the modern. The lab boasts everything from hundred-year-old plants, minerals, and stuffed and stripped mammals to a gang of more modern human skeletons (led by two standouts called Kurt and Courtney—a clear indication of the era from which they come), as well as a suite of technologically advanced offerings, including photo and video microscopy workstations, digital cameras, computers, and more. On my first visit, I found myself particularly taken with Tiny Town, an old-school library card catalogue whose drawers house thousands of tiny, natural specimens (Need to see what a bat’s hands look like up close? Tiny Town has you covered); on my second visit, the entire lab was abuzz with excitement over its newest acquisition, a decidedly cutting-edge scanning electron microscope. There’s a curious sense of being simultaneously frozen in time and at the forefront of highly innovative, cross-disciplinary, and collaborative work.
According to Lab Coordinator Betsy Ruppa, who oversees operations and approximately 25 work scholars in the student-run venue each semester (and whose hospitality and knowledge are exceeded only by her charm; she conducted my first tour with a live praying mantis in her hand the entire time), a big part of the lab’s magic comes from its hands-on culture, and the resulting sense of openness that permeates the space. “We know we can’t keep a pristine collection; we don’t even try. There are too many hands touching the samples, and they go in too many backpacks. That’s also what’s cool about it, though. It’s such an amazing resource, and there is so much freedom—more freedom than you’d have in a typical museum or library, for example.” In keeping with the spirit of that unusual freedom, if, as happens from time to time, students misplace something they’ve been lent, they’re asked to replace the item with either something in kind or a totally new specimen of their choosing.
Unmediated access has been integral to the collection’s identity from the start. When its namesake, RISD alumna (class of 1920) and teacher Edna Lawrence, launched the collection in 1937, her intention was to provide a uniquely interactive environment that would inspire her students. By multiple accounts, Lawrence was a much-loved character—strict but warm, (occasionally) funny, and very talented—who had the remarkable foresight to understand what the lab might become—a place to support and expand both the way that students learn and problem solve as well as the potential connections between art, design, and science over time.
Lawrence taught nature drawing between 1920 and 1974 in what was formerly her classroom, and is the Nature Lab’s current main room. During her 50-plus years as a teacher at RISD, she built up the collection through her own gathering expeditions. Every summer, according to the Nature Lab’s Director Neal Overstrom, “she’d travel around the world, sometimes to Europe aboard a steamship or a freighter, other times going to the Caribbean and South America. She even drove across country in the 1920s, camping along the way.” Slowly, thanks to Lawrence’s efforts, along with faculty and student donations, her teaching collection grew into what Overstrom aptly describes as an “intuitive and natural portal to science.”
Lawrence retired in the 1970s, and in 1981, the lab was renamed in her honor. Since that time, a series of curators has maintained her legacy and carried on her vision. On any given day, it might host undergraduate, graduate, and faculty guests from the Industrial Design, Architecture, and Apparel Design departments (among others), or even, of special note, RISD students and faculty involved in Rhode Island’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR)—an innovative, multi-school, state-wide effort funded by the National Science Foundation and aimed at making Rhode Island an “international leader in understanding and predicting the response of marine organisms and ecosystems to climate changes and variability.” This program—which over the past two summers has included fellowship opportunities for RISD and Brown students to undertake research in science communication around these topics—has led to the expansion of the Nature Lab’s aquatic resources, including two large saltwater tanks and special aquariums called kreisels built by RISD students to house ctenophores (tiny jellyfish-like creatures also known as comb jellies).
The breadth of the lab’s constantly growing collection falls neatly under the umbrella of a larger school initiative known as STEM to STEAM, which aims to add art and design to the national agenda of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and research. Championed by RISD President John Maeda, the initiative promotes the idea that scientific and artistic inquiry can be drawn together to foster new, innovative ways of approaching research and problem solving.
That creative, interdisciplinary thinking goes hand-in-hand with the Nature Lab’s position as an experimental and exploratory forum. As Overstrom notes, “Edna Lawrence’s vision really was remarkable. The way in which it’s informing many of these programs, like EPSCoR, which seem to find sort of a quasi-home here, speaks to the fact that this way of explaining a natural science collection has many applications in many emerging conversations about design, about nature inspired design, and even the field of biophilic design; this idea that you have an innate affinity for life and lifelike processes, of understanding the human-nature connection in built environments. The Nature Lab continues to be both a relevant and dynamic resource for all these emerging design disciplines.”
“We spend a lot of time thinking about Edna, actually,” adds Ruppa. “She was passionate about helping people to draw realistically and to explore and find inspiration in nature—to see connections and patterns throughout species and across kingdoms. She provided the foundation.”
In fact, according to Overstrom and Ruppa, some of Lawrence’s remaining documents even reveal her thoughts on the lab’s future and notions of advanced technologies and even micro-imaging. Says Overstrom, “Her mission was to provide immediate access to specimens, and microscopes allow you access where you might not otherwise. It’s just an extension of that. She was quite a forward thinker.”
The ever-evolving collection is a unique bridge between the past and the present, with a definitive eye toward the future. And considering the palpable energy and creativity that the students and staff derive from the space, it seems safe to say that Edna Lawrence would be proud. As Ruppa notes, “I could look at the same exact tiny skull as twenty other people, and we’d each be inspired differently. That’s what’s so great; you never know where someone’s going to get their idea.”
RISD’s Nature Lab seems like a logical place to start.
The act of listening is perhaps the most underrated skill there is in education. As teachers, we are often asked to “do” a lot more than necessary: memorize standards, plan lessons, prepare for various assessments, call homes, provide a warm environment for our students (and visitors), attend faculty meetings with varying effectiveness and relevance, grade mounds of papers, and take what little time we have left to eat and sleep, usually less than we should.
Yet, with the laundry list of things that teachers do, check for, and assess, we might be better off staying still and letting students tell us more about what they need.
This is especially crucial in situations where we may or may not share similar backgrounds with the students we teach. We’ve known for decades that building relationships is a central part of our work, but this has even larger implications when we work with disadvantaged students. The teacher-student relationship has so many subtle nuances across race, gender, and class lines that opening our eyes to these nuances would make us better educators. Time and again, we see a growing number of educators willing to forgo the need to jump directly into teaching, educators who are more into getting to know the students.
After all, we shouldn’t be preparing to teach content or the students we imagine might be there, but rather the students in front of us.
We can do this by taking up some of the skills we wish to impart on our own students. In our classrooms, however, that’s not enough. For excellence, we may need to switch the way we talk to and about students. Here are some workable strategies that I’ve used and observed.
Build Relationships, But as a Teacher First
Everyone has a different approach to classroom management. Some don’t smile until December, if ever. Others can’t help but smile and laugh throughout the year. Some impart their wisdom with diatribes and speeches, while others know how to quietly move about the room and make their presence felt. The common thread in all of those cases is students understanding that the teacher cares and has a specific way of showing that he or she cares. A few teachers have said, “The student might not be able to read, but they can read you.” That’s powerful in the context of schools where teachers don’t have the same cultural background as the students. When teachers have a passion for the students in front of them, and not just for the subject they’re teaching, everyone wins.
This also means, simultaneously, that teachers shouldn’t seek to create friendships in the normal sense. Many of my students would shake their heads at other teachers who tried to create friendships with them, saying they wanted a teacher, not another friend. While this might seem counterintuitive to progressive education (whatever that means), we must recognize that many students find comfort in having someone who provides stability and structure. Speaking of which. . .
Create a Fair and Equitable Environment
Currently, we’ve seen a surge of research that shows how real the school-to-prison pipeline has gotten. Black girls, for instance, face suspension at three times the rate of white girls, and black boys face suspension at six times the rate of white boys in NYC and Boston schools. With harsher systemic punishment doled out in our most vulnerable places, we need to recognize that classrooms are often the first place where students see inequity, and it’s usually not in the resources but in their treatment. We can create rules with students and believe in restorative justice, but until we reflect on the ways that we interact with students in their weakest moments, we will continue to perpetuate inequity.
For instance, when a student comes in late, do we first ask why they’re late or do we yell and banter about their lateness? Do we address individual students’ weaknesses in front of the entire class or seek to have private conversations first? Do we try to build a community of learners or do we harshly deny student agency? There are ways to be strict without being inhumane, but too often, some of us think quiet is the ultimate goal by any means necessary. Instead, we should strive to understand the students individually and develop a common sense of purpose for them collectively.
Ask Questions as a Form of Disarming
Too often, we come into situation with inherent biases that we might not recognize. Works from Peggy McIntosh, such as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (PDF 18KB), and Project Implicit underline the need to work against some of our deeply-held beliefs. In the classroom, we need to recognize the privileges we bring and ask better questions. Humility in some aspects can make us more attuned to the needs of all students, but especially underserved students. When we ask good, honest questions of our students in the moments when we as teachers don’t understand something, we seem more genuine.
Earlier in my career, for example, I thought I knew all about my students, so when I saw someone sleeping in class, I would attribute that to laziness or apathy. One day, we called his parent into school to find out what was going on and why this student couldn’t pay attention. As it turned out, his mother worked weird factory shifts, from 3PM to midnight, often leaving him with little supervision. One night, he accidentally left his keys inside his apartment, which meant he was locked out until she got home. Every teacher needs that sort of humility, even if we share a cultural background, because it can be easy to forget that we teach students.
After that experience, I tend to ask more than I assume, which should be a general rule of thumb for all teachers. Those with even less information about the students should ask more questions. Some of our most intelligent civil rights organizations recently joined forces to make recommendations to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the future of education. The one that stuck out the most for me was the idea of cultural competence as professional competence. In many circles, this matters more than our current debates on testing, Common Core, and school funding. For our students, the person who they see as the beacon of hope or the agent of their oppression (and everything in between) is their teacher. Excellent educators embrace this for themselves and for all of their students.
How many of us have sat through pointless or less-than-informational parent-teacher conferences? It often goes a little something like this: Mom asks, “How is Jeff doing in your class? I see he earned a “C,” and I want to know why.” Jeff sits silently, afraid the teacher will “spill-it” about what he has been up to in class. The teacher responds, “Sometimes Jeff does his work and is on-task, but other times he struggles to focus and talks too much. He loves to get the class going and cuts-up too much. I also have a problem with Jeff turning in his work.”
Mom and Dad turn to Jeff, “What’s this we hear about you goofing off in class?” Jeff shrugs. Dad says, “We’ll talk about this at home.” Jeff disengages as the conversation turns to missed assignments and lack of motivation.
Many of us have been there, as the student, teacher, or parent. It is painful, and what’s more, Jeff leaves feeling deflated rather than invigorated. His future motivation will most likely be to get everyone off his back, rather than to take greater ownership of his learning. We can even imagine that Jeff will be planning his escape from the next conference. In addition, little useful information was shared in the meeting. Did anyone come away with an understanding of what Jeff learned or didn’t learn or the effort he expended? Something’s got to give!
What if we asked Jeff to articulate and provide proof his own learning? What if he prepared evidence of his learning to show himself, his teacher, and his parents what he had achieved through his own effort? What if we put him at the center of the conference and the learning?
Professor John Hattie (2012) refers to this idea as creating assessment capable learners, those that can answer:
Where am I going? or What is the learning goal?
How am I going/doing? or What is my progress toward the learning goal?
Where to next? or How can I deepen my learning?
In other words, assessment capable learners own their learning, their progress, and their next steps. They can own and lead conferences as well. Before we outline a different model for conferences, we would suggest one additional question that will catapult the parent-teacher conference, as well as classroom relationships forward: What is my contribution? How many students are asking how they contribute to their own learning and that of their peers? How many teachers are encouraging the idea of students making a major contribution to the learning environment, lesson planning, feedback and conferences?
We could revolutionize conferences and the way that students feel about learning if we allowed these four powerful questions to drive our practice and conversations. Let’s begin with changing conferences from a less than helpful obligation of parents, teachers, and students to an empowering experience for students. We suggest three steps:
First, establish success criteria with the students by taking the time to determine what criteria will prove students know and are able to show they have reached the learning goals for the unit of study. Teachers can do this in a variety of ways, but the key is to involve students in the process so they develop an understanding of what success looks like and have a clear pathway to reach the learning goals.
Second, as the learning occurs ask students to gather evidence in a portfolio, notebook, or electronic tool that can be shared to prove learning. We recommend that the evidence shows progress, is messy, and includes mistakes, feedback, multiple drafts, misconceptions addressed, and the student’s own detection of errors, etc. During the entire learning process, ensure that the evidence students collect aligns to the success criteria and learning goals.
Third, change the current conference scenario by asking students to share their achievements through evidence with their parents. The conference can follow the four powerful questions that define an engaged and assessment capable learner, which will provide everyone with the information needed to understand what learning occurred and what is still to be learned.
New Conference Scenario:
By empowering students to own their learning and providing a meaningful conference experience for everyone involved, conferences can be changed forever and so can students!
Mary Jane O’Connell is a former elementary principal in Douglas County Colorado, and Kara Vandas is the former Director of Teacher Effectiveness at the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
Hattie, J. A. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on teachers.
New York, NY: Routledge.
O’Connell, M. J. & Vandas, K. (2015). Partnering with students: building ownership of
A big part of teaching a complex work of literature is directly confronting the battlements that students have erected around themselves. Many students have had bad experiences with Shakespeare, having been made to read it too young, too independently, too fast or as a static old text on the page, not a living play. Many students raise the white flag before the broil has even begins. “Why can’t he just say it?” “Why do we have to read that old English?” Anyone who has taught Shakespeare’s plays has heard some version of these refrains. For many students, “present fears are less than horrible imaginings” for real.
Teaching Shakespeare to catalyze deep thinking and authentic student engagement does require us to be resourceful: to be guide, psychologist, theater director, and scholar among other things. In 2015, we have a whole new set of tools at our disposal – tools that help…
ABOUT once a month I run across a person who radiates an inner light. These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all.
When I meet such a person it brightens my whole day. But I confess I often have a sadder thought: It occurs to me that I’ve achieved a decent level of career success, but I have not achieved that. I have not achieved that generosity of spirit, or that depth of character.
A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. I was going to have to have the sort of moral adventures that produce that kind of goodness. I was going to have to be better at balancing my life.
It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?
We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be O.K. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys. Gradually, a humiliating gap opens between your actual self and your desired self, between you and those incandescent souls you sometimes meet.
So a few years ago I set out to discover how those deeply good people got that way. I didn’t know if I could follow their road to character (I’m a pundit, more or less paid to appear smarter and better than I really am). But I at least wanted to know what the road looked like.
I came to the conclusion that wonderful people are made, not born — that the people I admired had achieved an unfakeable inner virtue, built slowly from specific moral and spiritual accomplishments.
If we wanted to be gimmicky, we could say these accomplishments amounted to a moral bucket list, the experiences one should have on the way toward the richest possible inner life. Here, quickly, are some of them:
THE HUMILITY SHIFT We live in the culture of the Big Me. The meritocracy wants you to promote yourself. Social media wants you to broadcast a highlight reel of your life. Your parents and teachers were always telling you how wonderful you were.
But all the people I’ve ever deeply admired are profoundly honest about their own weaknesses. They have identified their core sin, whether it is selfishness, the desperate need for approval, cowardice, hardheartedness or whatever. They have traced how that core sin leads to the behavior that makes them feel ashamed. They have achieved a profound humility, which has best been defined as an intense self-awareness from a position of other-centeredness.
SELF-DEFEAT External success is achieved through competition with others. But character is built during the confrontation with your own weakness. Dwight Eisenhower, for example, realized early on that his core sin was his temper. He developed a moderate, cheerful exterior because he knew he needed to project optimism and confidence to lead. He did silly things to tame his anger. He took the names of the people he hated, wrote them down on slips of paper and tore them up and threw them in the garbage. Over a lifetime of self-confrontation, he developed a mature temperament. He made himself strong in his weakest places.
THE DEPENDENCY LEAP Many people give away the book “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as a graduation gift. This book suggests that life is an autonomous journey. We master certain skills and experience adventures and certain challenges on our way to individual success. This individualist worldview suggests that character is this little iron figure of willpower inside. But people on the road to character understand that no person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason and compassion are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride and self-deception. We all need redemptive assistance from outside.
People on this road see life as a process of commitment making. Character is defined by how deeply rooted you are. Have you developed deep connections that hold you up in times of challenge and push you toward the good? In the realm of the intellect, a person of character has achieved a settled philosophy about fundamental things. In the realm of emotion, she is embedded in a web of unconditional loves. In the realm of action, she is committed to tasks that can’t be completed in a single lifetime.
ENERGIZING LOVE Dorothy Day led a disorganized life when she was young: drinking, carousing, a suicide attempt or two, following her desires, unable to find direction. But the birth of her daughter changed her. She wrote of that birth, “If I had written the greatest book, composed the greatest symphony, painted the most beautiful painting or carved the most exquisite figure I could not have felt the more exalted creator than I did when they placed my child in my arms.”
That kind of love decenters the self. It reminds you that your true riches are in another. Most of all, this love electrifies. It puts you in a state of need and makes it delightful to serve what you love. Day’s love for her daughter spilled outward and upward. As she wrote, “No human creature could receive or contain so vast a flood of love and joy as I often felt after the birth of my child. With this came the need to worship, to adore.”
She made unshakable commitments in all directions. She became a Catholic, started a radical newspaper, opened settlement houses for the poor and lived among the poor, embracing shared poverty as a way to build community, to not only do good, but be good. This gift of love overcame, sometimes, the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.
THE CALL WITHIN THE CALL We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security. But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up to the standard of excellence inherent in their craft.
Frances Perkins was a young woman who was an activist for progressive causes at the start of the 20th century. She was polite and a bit genteel. But one day she stumbled across the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, and watched dozens of garment workers hurl themselves to their deaths rather than be burned alive. That experience shamed her moral sense and purified her ambition. It was her call within a call.
After that, she turned herself into an instrument for the cause of workers’ rights. She was willing to work with anybody, compromise with anybody, push through hesitation. She even changed her appearance so she could become a more effective instrument for the movement. She became the first woman in a United States cabinet, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, and emerged as one of the great civic figures of the 20th century.
THE CONSCIENCE LEAP In most lives there’s a moment when people strip away all the branding and status symbols, all the prestige that goes with having gone to a certain school or been born into a certain family. They leap out beyond the utilitarian logic and crash through the barriers of their fears.
The novelist George Eliot (her real name was Mary Ann Evans) was a mess as a young woman, emotionally needy, falling for every man she met and being rejected. Finally, in her mid-30s she met a guy named George Lewes. Lewes was estranged from his wife, but legally he was married. If Eliot went with Lewes she would be labeled an adulterer by society. She’d lose her friends, be cut off by her family. It took her a week to decide, but she went with Lewes. “Light and easily broken ties are what I neither desire theoretically nor could live for practically. Women who are satisfied with such ties do not act as I have done,” she wrote.
She chose well. Her character stabilized. Her capacity for empathetic understanding expanded. She lived in a state of steady, devoted love with Lewes, the kind of second love that comes after a person is older, scarred a bit and enmeshed in responsibilities. He served her and helped her become one of the greatest novelists of any age. Together they turned neediness into constancy.
Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?
Their lives often follow a pattern of defeat, recognition, redemption. They have moments of pain and suffering. But they turn those moments into occasions of radical self-understanding — by keeping a journal or making art. As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.
The people on this road see the moments of suffering as pieces of a larger narrative. They are not really living for happiness, as it is conventionally defined. They see life as a moral drama and feel fulfilled only when they are enmeshed in a struggle on behalf of some ideal.
This is a philosophy for stumblers. The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. Recognizing her limitations, the stumbler at least has a serious foe to overcome and transcend. The stumbler has an outstretched arm, ready to receive and offer assistance. Her friends are there for deep conversation, comfort and advice.
External ambitions are never satisfied because there’s always something more to achieve. But the stumblers occasionally experience moments of joy. There’s joy in freely chosen obedience to organizations, ideas and people. There’s joy in mutual stumbling. There’s an aesthetic joy we feel when we see morally good action, when we run across someone who is quiet and humble and good, when we see that however old we are, there’s lots to do ahead.
The stumbler doesn’t build her life by being better than others, but by being better than she used to be. Unexpectedly, there are transcendent moments of deep tranquillity. For most of their lives their inner and outer ambitions are strong and in balance. But eventually, at moments of rare joy, career ambitions pause, the ego rests, the stumbler looks out at a picnic or dinner or a valley and is overwhelmed by a feeling of limitless gratitude, and an acceptance of the fact that life has treated her much better than she deserves.
Ice crystallized on the windshield, then a tire burst on the way to school, making you late. By the time you arrived, the computer (with the video clip and presentation cued up) froze. Minutes later, Jason pulled the fire alarm while you tried to catch up on parent emails. During lunch duty, an honor student was punched in the nose. Your nose is stuffy while you explain to the principal right before an IEP meeting why your plans haven’t been submitted yet. The day trudges along. . . At last, the final bell rings, and in your first quiet moment of the day, thoughts of leaving the teaching profession suddenly seem, well, right.
It’s that moment when you want to say, “I quit!”
We don’t talk about those feelings because we’re supposed to be like those heroic teacher-as-savior figures that permeate popular narratives about our work. And yet. . .
Here’s a secret. Most teachers, at some point, feel like giving up. Most feel the weight of not having done enough, feel the frustrations of negative media attention, and feel challenged by apathetic or disruptive students. Sometimes, the limits and loneliness of the lighthouse keeper are overwhelming. That’s when the enormity of our task feels insurmountable and we despair.
Driving home from such a day, we can be tempted to call in sick and plan for a sub. Sometimes that’s the right call. But there is another opportunity, too. You can take that empathy and understanding normally reserved for students and focus it on yourself. You can consider some strategies for gently accepting your circumstances, reflecting on what is needed, and preparing to return tomorrow. Consider these strategies:
1. Find a Friendly Shoulder
Call a trusted colleague, preferably one who’s been teaching a long time. Vent. Cry. Laugh hysterically and have a glass of beer or wine. Tell them about your struggles and frustrations. All teachers can recount a story of a crazed student or parent. Just ask them. Take this time to break the isolation of our work. No one escapes from teaching — or for that matter, any profession — without wondering if he or she made the right choice. Not even Teachers of the Year. In other words, dear colleague, you are not alone.
This sounds simple, and it is. Sit with the discomfort and notice it. Acknowledge frustrations of the day and then let them go. Listen to your self-talk and try to be kind to yourself. Practice slow breathing. If possible, carry this habit into your workday. It will create space for less reactivity and a more grounded emotional stance.
3. Plan for Community
Consider pausing the scheduled lesson, and instead, take time to engage in team-building activities with your students. An English teacher that I read about, after weeks of essays and test prep, surprised his 12th grade class with a game of kickball out on the blacktop. The sun shone, the kids ran like mad, and everyone came back laughing. It was crazy, unanticipated, and utterly glorious.
Do stacks of papers line your desk? Are parents waiting for your email? Are there field trip permission slips to process? Is the lab set up for tomorrow? Here’s what to do when the onslaught of tasks overwhelms you — write a list of everything that needs to get done in the next two days. (Yes. Write it down. The physical act of writing provides a sense of control.) Look at this list and choose the top three tasks. These three are the must-dos, urgent actions that will help you survive until the next day. After completing the must-dos, cross them off your list and go to sleep early.
5. Get Perspective
Teaching need not consume you. Devoting all of our waking hours to teaching primes us for burnout. And burnout is real. It happens when the demands and expectations of our work drown out our joy. Your other roles are important, too: friend, spouse, sibling, hiker, reader, dancer, joke-teller, or baker — a million other energizing possibilities. These other facets to your personality might need attention. So forget work over the weekend. Go to the forest or to a ball game. Get a massage. Try not to let happiness slip away. We can be good, caring, rigorous teachers, but sacrificing our personal lives is a costly and unsustainable price.
“There are stirrings of life in discontent,” wrote E.M. Forster, meaning that even in frustration and despair, a small flame wants to warm us. Life — ours and those of our students — nudges us. It is not wild or stormy, and chances are that it’s barely a flicker. And on the worst school day, it may not be felt at all. But trust that life is there. And when you open your classroom door tomorrow morning, you will find it.