Teaching, at first, may seem all about performance, about personality, but it’s not. We think about the quiet strength of a Mr. Chips or the take-no-prisoners Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. We fall in love with the Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society charisma where all you need is a class of bored adolescents, a good poem and a desk to stand on. It’s easy to succumb to the romance of teaching; it’s much harder to learn how to be a teacher.
Most important, teaching is all about the students and not the teacher. It’s about meeting learners where they are while leading them with skill and patience to their next level of understanding. It’s about taking young ideas very seriously, honoring them and not replacing them with your own…ever. I remember when I was teaching sixth-grade English and working on coming to a conclusion rather than writing a summary. We worked on conclusions that made connections, worked with metaphors or considered good questions. While writing about the character of Moses, one young writer concluded that, “Moses was practically perfect in every way,” with a footnote to Mary Poppins. Now that was a great way to make a connection…and it was all hers.
Teaching, too, is thoroughly about structure and deep design work. Sometimes it’s as difficult to see the architecture behind the lesson as it was for Yeats to know the “dancer from the dance.” As poet Charles Simic writes, “form is the visible side of content…the way in which content becomes manifest.” Yes, of course, there is the matter of curriculum, the “what” of learning, but the delivery, the planning for every minute and commitment to the students’ discoveries is hard but good work. Teachers are choreographers planning for the multitude of nuances in learning: how to bring all voices to the table; how to assess regularly for understanding; how to be just provocative enough without losing a child’s belief in herself.
And then there is what I call the “tending to.” Teaching is freighted with the relational, the human side of it all. Teachers both watch and watch over, every day and every class. We notice when a student seems at a crossroad or feels stuck. We care about the corners of their days and what they carry with them aside from what’s in their oversized backpacks. I’ve written about “keeping school,” and why heart and hand should link in that endeavor. Teachers “keep” classrooms in the same way. Sometimes the small things on the edges matter most, and we teachers try to tend to it all. And every day is different from the one before.
I was speaking with my husband, also a career-long educator, about this piece, and he reminded me about what I would call the “moments” in teaching: when something lights up a student; when learning becomes understanding; when a student discovers that she really can be that poet, that mathematician, that dancer, that sculptor. We both remembered former students coming back and sharing these moments with us, and often we didn’t even remember their stories as “moments.” But they did. That’s what teaching does. And, again, as I experience my last class, I’ve never been so keen, so alive about knowing what really matters in a school. Jane Hirshfield wrote about “the silence after…once the theatre has emptied.” Here’s the thing: While I might experience this silence after my last class, I know that silence is but a temporary stay against the next class, the next moment of teaching.