Sunday, October 31, 2010

The disposition to teach

A good friend and colleague recently, and unexpectedly, lost her husband.  Though the event was a shock that has undoubtedly already sent tremors throughout her life (their marriage stretched from college to grand parenting), at the viewing she was the same compassionate, steadfast person I admire and respect as a model educator.
She’s tough, but not in a let-me-get-my-gun kind of way.  She’s tough like an oak unbowed by a strong wind.
Though most feel that teaching is a job that anyone can do, this event underscored for me that those who excel share common traits. 
And those traits inspire my frequent “Teachers are my favorite people” comment.
Steel Magnolias
The good teachers have the same mix of warmth, strength, and humor that makes learning possible.  And the qualities are understated.  None of this larger-than-life, super-hero, come-to-save-the-day status.  These teachers labor steadily, often surprising others with their potency in trying times.
Since most teachers are women, their supposed frailty as the weaker sex often leads to an outsider's view of teachers as clueless, sheltered idealists, out of touch with the world.
Nothing of the sort.
A career teacher has seen every permutation of human behavior and dealt with it at eye-level: students who have been abused, students who abuse others or drugs, incidents of criminal behavior, mental illness, extreme poverty and homelessness, sexual aggression, bullying, breakdowns, violence, along with smaller matters like broken hearts, illness (think everything from vomit and bloody noses to a shocking death), fire drills, bomb threats, lockdowns, extreme weather, car accidents—the whole panorama of human conflict. 
Teachers cannot afford to be cowed.  No flinching allowed.
They plow in to find the source of a problem then model the strength and skills to move students beyond those realities to imagine a  different life.  Just part of the job.
It is a balancing act that excellent teachers--like my friend--make look very easy.
It isn’t.  Not everyone can do it.
It means hearing about student struggle without blinking. Or running away.
It means acknowledging situations with compassion while exhibiting confidence.  Kids need to see adults who can handle “whatever” without wigging out.
And then insisting, even assisting, kids to cope and continue learning.
Teachers who fail make mistakes of two kinds: coddling hard-luck kids and expecting less than their best, or going overboard by ignoring hindrances and focusing solely on curriculum.  One text put it this way:  Some teach kids.  Some teach their subject.  The best teach their subject to kids.
And the sense of humor?  That is a must.
We laugh in the face of puke or public breakdowns – both extremes every teacher faces in the classroom at one time or another.
We feel the emotional tenor of a building as it ripples through the school year, and shrug off both up and down days to face the next day with the same equanimity as the previous day.
It is a tightrope walk teachers – primarily women – enact in full view on a daily basis.
Good teachers know more about the realities of their community than their sheltered friends in business.
Good teachers are about as real as they come.
Good teachers are smart, and flexible, and ruffle-proof.
Good teachers are tough – and warm – and funny. 
Like my friend.