June 16th, 2011

The Softer Side of Teaching


It has not been a good week. While I was flying home from The Teaching Professor Conference, I got a call that my brother had an accident and broke his leg in three places. So I’ve been spending lots of time at the hospital and now lots of time taking care of this poor fellow who not only broke his leg but managed to have the accident in a patch of poison oak.

It’s been a week with lots of worries. How well will the leg heal? How long until he can walk? What about all our summer plans? By the time the evening finally rolls around, I’ve been too tired to work on those wonderfully complicated knitting projects I’m using to stave off dementia and keep finding myself in bed with a lovely collection of essays authored by Karen Eifler. She regularly writes for The Teaching Professor and is an education professor at the University of Portland, a Catholic university.

When I first looked at the book, I didn’t think it was for me. Karen’s not writing about college students—many of the essays describe her experiences teaching eighth graders (blessings and condolences) and the others are about even younger kids. Moreover, it’s a collection of inspirational essays that rest heavily on Catholic traditions. Each chapter is headed with a Biblical verse or other religious writing and every essay relates aspects of teaching to religious stories, themes and traditions.

But I must admit, it was as if God (whose existence I more regularly doubt than believe) delivered the book to me for this week. The essays are so moving, so heartfelt, so dedicated to seeing value in every student and to discovering and cultivating the gifts that each possess. They also show teachers dealing with all kinds of unexpected happenings in the classroom and learning from them. I’m thinking this is a life lesson.

I don’t think this book is for everyone, but it has helped me get through a difficult week. I felt inspired and once again passionately in love with teaching. Maybe it’s just an emotionally vulnerable time, but I ended up loving the book and wishing there were more than the 30 essays it contains. I didn’t stumble over, but found my way around all the religious references to those great truths about teaching, whether the students are in kindergarten or college. A teacher can do so much for a student—not every student, not every day—but teachers touch lives. In one of those essays a now-grown student recounts for a teacher how she quieted the class as he offered a theory as to why Iago was so mean. Then she looked him in the eye and said to the rest of the class, “Ted has a point there.” And that, he told her, started his love affair with literature which ended with a Ph.D.

We are so afraid of the softer sides of teaching—so afraid to let ourselves believe that miracles (be they divinely or humanly made) can happen in our classrooms. These essays bear witness to the value of teachers trusting students, believing in them and celebrating, not just their learning, but their growth and development as human beings.

There are also essays about teachers—noteworthy examples of dedication and creativity. And there are essays about teachers who fail students. Another explores how hope sustains teachers. “Teaching is not for the faint of heart. Nor is it for the faint of hope. It is the audacity to keep coming back to a classroom full of hormonally revved teens whose heavily lidded eyes and sunken posture practically scream, “I dare you to care enough to keep trying to teach me.” [Hmmm, maybe she is writing about our students afterall.] It is the ability to hold fast to the conviction that we can inject a dose of grace into the world these worthy young souls inhabit. That is hope, and hope is any teacher’s wellspring.” (p. 105)

Reference: Eifler, K. A Month of Mondays: Spiritual Lessons from the Catholic Classroom. Chicago: ACTA Publications, 2011. (May be ordered online at www.actapublications.com)