Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Teacher Appreciation Day 2011

Colson Hall, home of the WVU English Department
True confession:  when I first started working with English-education majors years ago,  I openly scoffed at those who said they wanted to be teachers because they just loved kids so much! 

(Although not as much as I scoffed at those who said they wanted to be teachers so they could be home when their kids got back from school, or because they wanted to have their summers off.  Dream on, folks!)

This semester I've heard a lot of buzz about "teacher dispositions" in meetings at the college of education.  That's a fancy, euphemistic way of describing whether a student in the teacher-ed program has the personality, perseverance, sensitivity, tolerance, and sheer nerve that it takes to survive and thrive in the classroom. 

A few days after my first-grade teacher died in March, I ran into a friend from the college of ed, and we talked about how some people are just born to teach.  Even if they didn't have the official title "teacher," that's what they'd be doing in whatever setting they found themselves in.  Malayna and I agreed that in many ways, the idea of "training" teachers seems absurd.

Sure, anyone wanting to teach needs as much content knowledge in their discipline as they can get, and also needs to love learning generally in order to convey that enthusiasm to others and to keep up-to-date in their field.  In terms of practice, though, while there may be specific tools and skills to be learned and refined, the idea of "training" teachers renders what is at its best an art into something numbingly mechanical.

And my own reaction to the passing of Molly Davis made me reconsider whether "love" really is all you need to be a good teacher.

While I recall some of the knowledge I acquired in her classroom, what I remember most is how she made me and all her other students feel:  Noticed.  Cherished. Nurtured.  And yes, loved.  As I told several folks, after hearing of her death, I felt like I'd lost another of those very few adults who loved you unconditionally as a child.  Without that deep feeling of acceptance, would I have learned as much?  Of course not.  And for sure, having an adult who was passionate and excited about what she was teaching, and who never doubted that we'd be just as excited about it, was the best incentive for learning imaginable.

Now, I'm still enough of a realist (or a snob, depending on your perspective) to know that love ain't all that teachers need to succeed.  Teachers still need "training," but there is, undoubtedly, an intangible, essential quality that the best ones bring to the job.

So maybe what we need is a different, more specific term than "love."

Jane calls it "school love."

For lack of a better term, I might call it faith.  I really think that to be a successful teacher, you have to have a core belief that what you do matters, that all students can learn, and that education is the key to enlightenment and opportunity.  Which is not to say that teachers won't have crises of that faith.  And certainly, there will be many experiences, and students, and administrators (especially administrators!) that will regularly challenge that faith. 

In the weeks after Molly's death, I heard a couple of songs that seemed apt, not just for her, but for all the other hardworking teachers out there. This one by Earth, Wind and Fire especially caught my ear with its opening lyrics:
Through devotion, blessed are the children
Praise the teachers that bring true love to many.
Your devotion opens all life's treasures
and deliverance from the fruits of evil.
So on this Teacher Appreciation Day, let's praise our devoted teachers, and help them keep the faith.

(Oh, and if you're in Ohio, you might consider signing the petition against Senate Bill 5 being circulated by the group We Are Ohio.)


Susan said...

Although I agree that it takes a certain je ne sais quois to be a teacher, especially to be a great one, I think a lot can also be learned. Unfortunately, when training teachers it seems like philosophies and approcaches keep changing without much thought or data, which is why teacher ed can sometimes seem so worthless.

Have you seem the article from the Jan 2010 Atlantic, "What Makes a Great Teacher?" Very interesting reading. (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/01/what-makes-a-great-teacher/7841/)

Anonymous said...

Amen sister. We talk about it a lot at work. Since I go into 24 totally different preschool classrooms, it is easy to see who has "it" and who doesn't. I believe it's in your heart. I was talking to a coworker yesterday that I've been doing a little experiment just for myself by walking into each classroom and making eyecontact with each child smiling and saying something positive to them. The results are almost immediate. Children want to know that you "see them" and I mean really see them. It's amazing how many preschool teachers go through the day with facial expressions that are in a perpetual scowl!

major7th said...

Happy Teacher Appreciation Day to two of my favorite former teachers! Rosemary deepened my appreciation for YA lit, Tom blew my mind with what Science Fiction can achieve in literature. And need I mention Linguistics? Although it was never my strongest subject (far from it), you never made me feel stupid once when I came for help, which to me, is one of the most important things a teacher can do. Thanks to both of you!

Christy said...

You've made me think fondly of Mr. Logsdon (I never knew how much I appreciated him till many years later). You can really tell the difference between those who love the profession and those who are burned out or phoning it in. Glad to have had so many in the former category, and I love that your students continue to show you appreciation for the same!