Thursday, July 12, 2012

lessons from teaching, #2

authenticity = impact 
Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person… In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.”   ~ David Brooks, “The Service Patch” (24 May 2012) 
I have been fascinated to discover the difference between the statements, “I teach high school English” (Oh. Did you make the mistake of majoring in poetry?) and “I’m doing Teach for America” (Cool! That’s a really good thing to do).  

Oddly enough, my students never seemed to care how or why I became a teacher; I have learned from them just how much who I am matters – or more broadly, how important character is in any field.  This was, in fact, the initial brilliance of Teach for America – recognizing that at least part of the problem in education was a human capital problem, that there was an undersupply (please do not read “no supply”) of qualified and quality teachers.   While many people were focused on reworking curricula or improving testing/accountability, Kopp recognized what E.M. Bounds once observed about ministry: “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.” 

As a generation (even as a culture?) we have defined “better” as based on community service.   To some extent, I understand the movement towards positive action in place of the simple negative avoidance that accompanied previous moral fervor.   As a pastor-friend, Dan Orr, once observed during a similar discussion, “We will never be a witness for our beliefs by what we don’t do in our work;” people seldom notice the absence of insult or injury.  And yet it is hard to serve without some belief driving us. 

So the real litmus test becomes: how deep does that belief go?  No matter the type of job we are working, how authentic are we?  The fact that I was “serving” erased neither my desire for a beer after a rough day, nor the obvious query on students’ faces if they saw me purchasing it at the local market: “I guess that education he preaches doesn’t land you that far from the reality I know.”  As John Poulton observed, “People communicate primarily, not words or ideas… Authenticity gets across from deep down inside people… A momentary insincerity can cast doubt on all that has made for communication up to that point.”  Inversely, that same authenticity can communicate positively.  I never saw growth from KJ while I taught him, but after we developed a relationship through athletics/coaching, he ended up working – on his own time - many of the same reading, ACT prep, and time management lessons that he had not previously!  Q. started the year with an underwhelming 6th-grade reading level and an overwhelming attitude, but after I visited her family and attended the funeral following her brother’s untimely death, her performance tipped and she grew 5 years in reading that year. Nothing about teaching itself demanded that I have these relationships; it was not simply where I worked or what I did that created these impacts. 

To accept that some jobs are nobler than others is to believe the industrial myth that we are what we do for a living.  Some people may work vocationally and explicitly at what we are all called to do universally.  But that does not remove the need for our involvement.  What if we began to view education as a community initiative instead of an individual teacher’s responsibility, building relationships with students that supported them holistically?  What if we viewed missions as part of our Christian calling – in any environment – rather than the responsibility of pastors and missionaries?  What if we stopped completely outsourcing poverty to the government, and took responsibility for some needs in our communities?  We need to “jump in.” Teaching pushed me in, removing my comfortable distance, forcing authentic, moral concern, and I am grateful.  But as I enter I different context, I pray I dive in voluntarily, with a cannonball.  

1 comment:

  1. This brings two thoughts to mind. Fr. Baker once noted in a homily that it's not the job itself that demands dignity, but who does the job, i.e. a human being. He gave the example of walking through VUMC and noting that he tended to acknowledge the people in white coats before he would the people in drab khaki uniforms. That's something I try to remember and proclaim: human beings give jobs their dignity, not vice versa.

    Secondly, my mom told me about a minister who would say, "Either your job should be your ministry, or ministry should be your job."

    All that to say, "Amen!"