What does it mean to be a teacher? Throughout my professional life this question, or some variation of it, has been my companion, at times laying comfortably in the background, at others rising as a burning need to really understand the essence of teaching & learning. I have yet to arrive at a simple, satisfying conclusion, but my emerging and still evolving understanding is that the process, the negotiation, of teaching & learning is a powerful, primal component of the human experience. There is a yearning there, both to see others survive, succeed and thrive, and also to be fed, however vicariously, through the success of others.
More than personal or professional accomplishment (though it is that), it is the satisfaction of a greater social responsibility. Perhaps it is an evolved, biological need to contribute to the survival of the species.
Of course, in the 21st century things are a bit more complicated. Politicized, over-administered, micro-managed and bureaucratized, teaching & learning as a modern era phenomenon has become universally identified with artificially constructed educational systems (shall we call it “Big Ed”?). The “box” model. A room. A bunch of uncomfortable seats. Maybe a projector. Call it a classroom. Measure ruthlessly. We depersonalize and disconnect ourselves from this beautiful thing. As if it were an experiment, we cannot be part of it, really.
But the beauty of it is that, despite this over-administration, or perhaps in defiance of it, every day I still see teachers, true teachers, who keep the fundamental spirit of teaching & learning alive; people who are committed to their craft and to their students. Individuals who, through their love of teaching & learning, bring life to those boxes. People who belong in that role.
Why? I think every true teacher’s motivation must be different. I cannot yet wholly answer that question for myself, I think. In some part there is the need to help those who struggle, emotionally and academically, to move past the next shallow plateau of achievement. But deep inside I sense, in myself at least, the desire to see the genius separate him or herself from the crowd, to stand with great intent in the maelstrom of knowledge, withstanding the challenges and defeats that infuse life with learning. And to be fed by those challenges. To realize being human. Ultimately, to humbly achieve.
The greatest part of this, and the most humbling for myself, comes when I review the long list of dedicated teachers who each had a hand in the cultivation of this new creative spirit. How different they all are! Approaching the art and science of teaching & learning from different angles and strategies, employing different tactics and each with their unique rules. They are all, this diversity of teachers, necessary for the flourishing of the human spirit. The sum, indeed, is greater than the parts.
The phenomenon of teaching & learning is a passionate and complex social negotiation that strikes deeply at the core of what it means to be human. It is sincerely respectful of human need. It is essential for social order. The consequent advancing and structuring of knowledge supports a culture of achievement and progress.
Ultimately, how we define ourselves as a people depends on the respect we pay to this powerful, primal process, this emotionally charged yet humble relationship between humans we call teaching & learning.