I’m a high school English teacher. When I share this with others, they usually respond with some variation of the following: “Wow. That takes courage.”
It’s an accurate observation, but it’s only half the story.
Yes, teaching does require chutzpah: you’re on stage, a performer. More than that, you are the playwright and director. Invariably, you’re also your own worst critic. And it’s a performance that takes place in front of an often reluctant audience.
It’s an intense experience, being on display. I don’t just mean physically, although that’s certainly true; I recall my embarrassment when I arrived at school one day and realized I was wearing mismatched shoes. I prayed my students wouldn’t notice. They did.
When you teach a subject you love, there’s a feeling of emotional risk. I want my students to adore Steinbeck or the Brontës as much as I do. When they respond with enthusiasm, it’s an absolute high. But when they respond with boredom or hostility, it’s a tremendous low.
It’s at times like this that I feel an intimate part of myself is on display. I’m reminded of the old picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It seems the world can see my heart, exposed and vulnerable.
Is this a bored class I see before me?
All of this was on my mind just recently, as I taught Macbeth. With its witches and phantom daggers, its misty moody Scottish atmosphere, and its warning about the dangers of ambition, it’s one of my all-time favorites.
This time, though, it went over like a ton of bricks. “I hate Macbeth,” several students told me. My careful lessons about understanding the play’s archaic language and syntax met with resistance. “This play is too old and dull,” they complained. Although a few students gamely volunteered to read aloud, the majority of the class sat with blank and bored faces while, acting like a maniacal camp counselor, I did my desperate best to whip up enthusiasm.
It felt pretty darn lonely, being the only one in the room who wanted to read the play.
Hope springs eternal
But somewhere around the death of King Duncan, I overhead a student talking to her neighbor. “I like this play,” she said.
My ears perked up in surprise. Had I heard correctly? Someone in that reluctant crowd liked the play?
It was suddenly much easier to get up there and teach.
Two weeks later, with the play finished and Macbeth in the grave, I went from desk to desk collecting the copies I’d loaned the kids. This student looked at me with hopeful eyes. “Do I have to give it back?” she asked beseechingly.
This was the first time in my seven years of teaching that a student had wanted to keep a textbook. I was utterly moved. Believe me, if it were mine to give, it would have been hers in a heartbeat.
For just when everything that I’d believed about literature’s power to touch lives had seemed bogus, this student had given me something. My painful yet heartfelt four-week performance had not been a complete rout. Someone in the audience had, in fact, been moved.
Courage and …
Ultimately, then, this story points to the essence of teaching. It’s about making yourself vulnerable, trusting that someone sitting in the chipped desks will respond. It’s about hanging onto the belief that something glorious can happen when lives and literature come together. It’s about risking your heart in a portable classroom, ready or not, day after day.
And that’s why teaching takes not only courage, but something else, too.
It takes faith.