September 9th, 2008

Modest Aspirations


Writing about his maturation as a teacher, Kent Sandstrom (in one of my all time favorite articles) describes how he began his teaching career with such ambitious and lofty goals. In the tradition of Dewey he aspired to educate citizens for lives of social activity and responsibility.

He wanted to help develop the intellectual and emotional resources students would need to transform oppressive practices and create more just, nonviolent and democratic forms of life in communities and countries.

The daily delivery of instruction comes up hard against these kinds of goals. Lots of practical realities get in the way and soon those goals seem as distant as the stars. They twinkle, grow dim, and maybe even fade from view.

But Sandstrom found a way to preserve them. He writes about beginning “to appreciate the unpredictable and sometimes fleeting moments when students and I successfully enacted freedom in the classroom. . . . I became more aware and appreciative of the ‘small accomplishments’ I experienced as a teacher—those moments of joy, grace, and wonder when my students fell in love with an idea, gained an interesting insight, asked a provocative question, felt excited about learning, or looked at themselves and their work in new ways.” (p. 527)

He sums with the most important lesson taken from those first years of teaching. He learned “to embrace modest hopes and appreciate the small pleasure that arise in the teaching process.” (p. 527)

I still like to keep the noblest of my teaching aspirations in a jar on the counter where I can see them every day. I don’t open the jar often, but it’s there for those occasions when there’s a chance my teaching can help a student move to a new and higher place.

Reference: Sandstrom, K. L. “Embracing Modest Hopes: Lessons from the Beginning of a Teaching Journey.” In B. A. Pescosolido and R. Aminzade, eds., The Social Worlds of Higher Education. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 1999.

—Maryellen Weimer