The title of this Vantage Points is intentionally ambiguous. Does it describe the decision to become a teacher or does it depict the journey of deepening one’s teaching, a sort of permanent present participle? Actually, it suggests both. Teaching contains multitudes that only increase over the years: the longer you teach, the more complex, challenging and deep the job grows. It’s a little bit like parenting for which hindsight affords the perspective of long-in-the-making growth and commitment, something you just might miss at the very beginning.
There’s a certain “Mr. Chips” romance about teaching. It’s an easy thing to fall in love with…in the abstract. If I had $100 for every change-of-career friend who wanted to move into teaching because they love what they think it is, I’d be able to make a sizable contribution to our endowment. But the truth is that there is a lot of hard, developmental work in becoming a teacher, and there’s a fair amount of laundry as well. Every hour in the classroom has behind it hours of design and architecture. And within every one of those classroom hours is an intensity and engagement that can’t entertain “having a bad day.” I can still remember my first days of standing in front of 15 eager 13-year-olds trying their best to make sense of the short story notes I adopted from my upper-level college class.
And this romance has, as well, a complicated side called respect for the profession. It’s a funny combination. There’s an automatic admiration, even awe, for teachers, but there is also an economic judgment as part of the package. Long ago, at another school, a parent told me that if her daughter didn’t land in a prestigious enough college and thereby, she believed, compromise her future income capacity, then, well, “she could always teach.” Her own dismay at this possibility was trumped by mine for having heard her say this. The coin of the realm in teaching, professionalism and commitment, doesn’t always account for much if the larger world’s realm is solely coin. It takes a flinty determination to become a teacher, one that recognizes the historic and lifelong disconnect between compensation and dedication.
But teachers also recognize the incredible personal value in meeting the challenges and responsibilities teaching calls for every single day. A true science, teaching demands a skill set that is never fixed and is always developing: we have a purposeful and abiding curiosity about learning. We recognize that teaching calls for an exquisite sense of grace, patience and discernment, knowing, especially, when to let go and when to push further. And we know the delight in design, approach and continuum. As curators of the moment, our world is contextual and responsive, but always within the carefully structured and framed, always within the service to moving forward. When my daughter, Beth, was in her first year of teaching as an assistant kindergarten teacher, her head of school secretly left me a voicemail to share how Beth handled a moment during recess. A student, new from Japan, speaking no English but holding all the social currency, held court. “What is she saying,” they asked Beth who speaks no Japanese. “She said we should all come in and take our seats now,” Beth answered, and they all did. Sometimes the seams of what we do don’t even show.
So, yes, teaching always lives in that present participle of becoming. There is no declared winner in learning and no finished teacher. Rather, teaching is a continual learning process that honors the incomplete and sometimes surrenders to the imagined. We are all becoming, and this is especially true of teaching, a job that demands ongoing growth while presenting brand new opportunities every year. A few years ago, I ran into a former student of mine, now a teacher. I caught her on a mid-August morning heading towards her fifth-grade classroom. It was her second year teaching that grade level, and when I asked her how it went, she smiled and said, “It went well, and now I’m saying to myself, ‘OK, let’s do it again…only better!’”
I often get in early and these mornings are precious to me. Cesar welcomes me as he opens the door. I hear our tireless kitchen staff laying out breakfast, prepping for lunch. Both elevators are on the first floor. Down the hall to the end of the Townhouse the early bird and seemingly permanent occupants wave to me from the table to which they lay stake. On the seventh floor the orchestra is warming up for practice. In the corner of the hallway there is a forgotten notebook with huge, black marker letters spelling out a name that beckons its owner to rescue it. Lights begin to pop on and the teaching and learning that is Spence begins.