Three Words to use to Ordain Teachers (from 2-3-12)

This past Sunday afternoon I attended the ordination service for a friend who was entering the ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was a beautiful service, and made me think we perhaps need to have an ordination ritual of sorts for teachers, whose work, we tend to forget, is as much a calling as the ministry is. 

We seem to have lost the sense of vocation, of sacred calling in our society, but I think this loss is nowhere more prevalent, or tragic, than in teaching. We hear a lot of talk about “elevating” the teaching profession, but this usually means rewarding teachers whose students score well on tests by giving them more money. But making teachers into test score coaches is not “elevating” the profession. Treating it as the true calling it is might.

The rhetoric surrounding teaching is often filled with words like “value added” and “accountability” and “data.” We seldom hear words like “vocation” and “calling” and “service.” At the ordination service I attended, one of the things the ordained promised was to serve his congregation with energy, intelligence, and imagination. 

I loved those three words. If only we would talk less about the data analysis and conformity required to teach, and more about the commitment of energy, intelligence, and imagination that are needed. 

I don’t think people understand the kind of energy needed to teach well. And I’m not talking only about the energy required to be “on” for six hours a day, the energy required to deal with teaching and discipline and class group dynamics and interruptions and clinic passes and fire drills and insects in the room. The longer I teach, the more I realize that the kind of energy I must try to bring into the room is a steady, unyielding, imperturbable attitude that what we are doing today matters, it’s important, and I can help you succeed at it. Students come into the room with so much baggage, so much negative energy. They don’t like to read or write. They hate reading and writing. They can’t do it. They’ve always failed at it before. Reading and writing are irrelevant to their lives. They don’t care about it. They will resist you every step of the way.

It takes a well of energy and… yes, faith, to stand up to the negativity and apathy many students give off. Faith that what you are trying to teach them does matter, that it will make a difference in their lives, faith that at some point things will “click” and they will realize that learning things in your class will make a difference to them– maybe even today rather than in the future. It takes energy to get up in the morning and to go in and stand in front of your classes like a steady flame, giving off the message for one more day, for six more classes. You are important. What I’m teaching is important. You can learn it. Learning it matters. I will help you. Some days you seem to make no progress. Some school years you feel you’ve gotten through to very few. But you keep going, and from somewhere you summon the energy to keep giving off the message. And deal with clinic passes. 

The second thing the ordinate was asked to serve with was intelligence. It may sound obvious that a teacher should serve his students with intelligence, but it seems as though the chief activity of intelligence, thinking, is appreciated less and less in teachers. Advanced degrees are devalued. Curricula are made teacher-proof so that the teacher doesn’t need to think, only dispense ready-made materials. We want the people responsible for teaching our children to think to do as little thinking as possible. 

But aside from the war on thinking (which deserves its own post), teaching demands not just intelligence, but different kinds intelligence operating on different levels. Intelligence about your subject matter and how it works. Rubrics aside, what does it really mean to write well? Tests with dates on them aside, what does it really mean to know history and think about it well? Labs aside, what does it really mean to think like a scientist? 

Intelligence is necessary for setting goals, designing lessons and assignments, and choosing materials (or not choosing them as the case may be). Intelligence is necessary for deciding when to stay with the lesson you planned, and when to let the lesson be derailed by the teachable moment. Social intelligence is necessary to find the best way to deal with students– when to encourage and when to challenge them, when to show mercy, and when to set a firm limit. Intelligence is necessary to try to analyze what is causing some students to succeed and some to fail. Data will tell you who is failing, but seldom why, or what to do about it. 

The last word in the trio of words at the ordination, imagination, has all but vanished from the world of education. We discourage imaginative play even in Kindergarten in favor of “structured” play. And even as we take imagination away from children, we consider imagination to be a childish quality. To encourage teachers to be imaginative isn’t even on our radar. 

Why is imagination necessary to teach well? Imagination is necessary for coming up with new ways to reach hard to reach students and new ways to engage students who learn quickly. Imagination combined with intelligence is necessary for thinking up the project that teaches multiple skills at once. Imagination is necessary for imagining a path from where students are now to where you’d like them to be. 

To quote Buckminster Fuller, “There is nothing about a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” It takes imagination to look at a student slumped down in a desk, hoodie pulled tight around his face, grunting about everything being stupid and boring, and see a potential writer, scientist, historian, or doctor. It takes imagination to see potential in people who seem to be actively trying to kill their own potential. 

As a parent, I want my kids’ teachers to teach with energy, intelligence, and imagination. Wouldn’t you? We should ask ourselves– is what we are doing to teachers encouraging or discouraging teachers’ energy? Are we pushing teachers to use their intelligence or to suppress it in favor of conformity? Are we asking, demanding, that teachers use their imaginations, or are we making them feel guilty for even having imaginations? 

What words are we using to describe teaching? 

In the sermon at the ordination service, one of the main themes was this: You don’t really know the good you are doing. You may never know. You act, and your actions have ripple effects you cannot see. 

I know that statisticians are now saying they can track the effect teachers have on their students for years, showing that one teacher raising a student’s test scores can lead to X number of dollars in increased income  for that student later in life. I don’t know enough to refute the validity of the statistics, but I do know that promoting such numbers leads to a narrow and impoverished view of education. 

My choice of career has had more to do with my income level than the quality of my elementary school teachers. But all my teachers, in one way or another helped shape my conception of who I am, and of the world around me. I have had the privilege of telling some of my former teachers what they have done for me, but some of them never really knew. When I read a poem, my appreciation is shaped by Mrs. Hughes. When I draw a comic strip, I do it with a talent that was encouraged by Mr. Ross. When I write, I am still bolstered by the fact that Mr. Jacobs found my ideas insightful and wise beyond my years.  My teachers shaped and continue to shape the qualities of my everyday experiences: reading and writing, speaking and listening, thinking about life in ways I might not have been able to without them. 

We need to acknowledge the mystery at the heart of teaching. We plant seeds, and we never know where they will lead. And that’s okay. It’s not a way of avoiding responsibility, but of acknowledging the way life is.  Even with our own children, we may never quite find out what we’ve done for, or to, them in this lifetime. 

At the end of the service, the ordinate receive his “charge” to ministry. Amusingly, it included the line “Live long, and prosper.” If only we had a ceremony where we could give teachers a “charge.”

If I were to charge a new teacher, I might say something like this:

You are about to become a teacher, the profession that makes all other professions possible. Take on this task with energy, intelligence, and imagination. Your task will not be easy. You will feel discouraged– sometimes more often than you feel encouraged. You will feel that your students should show gratitude, and many days they will only show annoyance with you for attempting to teach them. Parents will challenge you for challenging their children to do their best. You will sometimes reach the end of the day and look around at a room full of crumpled up papers and disheveled desks and wonder why you should care if they don’t. You will feel like you aren’t making any progress. You will feel like quitting. 

But there will be other days. Days when the lights suddenly come on for a student or two. Days when a class discussion suddenly takes on a life of its own and students suddenly throw out insights that surprise even you. Days when someone who has said “I hate writing” every day since August mutters, “I kind of had fun writing today.” Days when one student comes back to your trashed classroom and helps you clean it up– and not just in hopes of getting a candy bar. 

And you don’t know the good you are doing. Students may not realize what they got out of your class until next school year, or next decade, or someday when they have their own kids in school. The value you add is not just future income, but future out-put: what you encourage students to bring to and contribute to the world. 

Be yourself. The best teaching comes out of who you are. Be an individual in a career that increasingly wants its practitioners to be drones. 

Have faith in what you are doing, and in your students’ potential, even the students who seem least likely to succeed. Have faith that what you are doing matters. That’s important, because that faith is the light that needs to burn from you, even when you’re exhausted, in the face of student apathy, cynicism, and despair. 

You matter. This matters. This is important. You can do it. You can learn it.

That is the message you must give your students every day. It is the message you need to remind yourself of every day. 

Live long and prosper.