It was a bright sun, cool, but the sun made it feel warmer. The students looked towards me, but they looked through me. I was blurred at the front of the room.
I was not making any sounds that they could hear. On this day I would have to stand on my head.
I would have to draw funny pictures on the board. I would have to run in circles and do imitations. But nothing would work, of course. I knew that.
There was a beast in the room. They could feel it, and I could feel it. We all felt its lurking heaviness. It sat on top of us, crushing us with all its mangled metal and flashing red lights. We were smothering under its oil and gasoline and burning rubber.
I knew when I entered the classroom that the beast would be in there. I knew it was going to sit on us. I knew that there would be nothing the students nor I could do to defend against that horrible weight. I was foolishly angry at myself that I, their teacher, could not drive that horrible beast out of the room, that I could not save them from it–but the pervasive, somberness of the beast would overwhelm us. And it did.
“We’re not meeting today.”
When the room was empty, I looked again at her empty desk and told her I would miss her. Outside, the sun was graciously warm on my face. I walked with that old and worn bag of tricks clutched firmly in my hand. On most days, the tricks would still work.
I have learned as a teacher that students enter the classroom with an expectation that I will teach them something that they need to know as they journey towards a degree. I say that I will ‘teach” them something rather that they expect to “learn” something because I have found that their expectations are that if they will listen to me, the classroom will become a place where learning will occur. Looking back on my own education, I understand why they feel this way. Most of my time in classrooms was spent listening to the teacher. It was a pretty straight forward method of instruction that seemed to get the job done—after all, I did manage to get through school, which was the point, I guess.
But now I believe the point has to be more than that. Now as a teacher and not as a student, I go into the classroom and think, “What is it that I can do today that will cause these students to learn this lesson without my firm hand on the rudder? I suppose if the dean heard that he might begin to wonder why they are paying me…. But it is what I think works best: the students have the potential to learn more in a classroom where much of the class time is unscripted than they can from my binder of old worn lecture notes. I accept that I must do something productive in the classroom, so to that end I throw out topics, ideas, theories, often purposely distorting them, letting them crash and bang provocatively against the four stoic walls of the classroom, and then I sit back and listen, moving the rudder ever so slightly here and there to keep the ship going in the right direction….
The bottom line for me is this: never underestimate the abilities students have to steer the boat on a new and adventurous—and educational–course. If I always steer the boat, the boat will go only where I want it to go. It will not go into those uncharted waters that the students want to discover and explore if given the chance. On some days the boat should certainly dock safely, and on those days I keep the rudder firmly in my hands…but on many more days I want the boat to rock and lurch wildly, smashing into rocks here and there, as it charges towards who knows where. Hang on!
It takes courage on those days to keep my hands off the rudder.
When I meet any social work class, I am always a little apprehensive. It does not matter if it is the first class or a class toward the end of the semester—I am equally a little apprehensive. I have questions about myself—will I be able to help them understand what it is I think they need to know? Will what I say today make any sense to them? Can I really help them understand these important social work concepts? However, as the apprehension lessens, I become a thief. I look at their faces and think, “How can I get what they have?” So I become an apprehensive thief who hides his true intentions in carefully-crafted lesson plans.
What they have are fears, anxieties, hopes, determination, sadness, joy—all of these and more, and they translate it into energy that I can hear and take for my very own if I truly listen when they speak and when they do not. If I am good at it, I mean, if I am the thief I really want to be, they will think they are responding to my remarks, and they will not have any idea at all that they have just let me take from them something very precious—the wisdom of their youth, or the wisdom of their years, their very essence that makes a classroom come alive. But fear not as what I take from them replenishes itself instantly. A new day comes, another class comes, and I am able to do it all over again.
Students come into the classroom deserving something from me. They deserve more, certainly, than me simply expounding on theories, demonstrating my vast knowledge of the subject of social work; what they deserve is that I am an honest person who believes in himself and who knows and reveals that he does not have all the answers–and who does not want all the answers. When they look at me, I hope they see someone who is as imperfect as they are, but someone who will always be doing his best, just as they will always be doing their best, and someone who is smiling after each class as he walks away with arms laden with treasure.