Friday, October 5, 2012

The Vocation of the Teacher

Here are some six-word “essays” that describe teachers:

            “I remember her fifty years later.”
            “Teachers hold the ladders students climb.”
            “Destroy chains. Shape wings. Inspire flight.”
            “I struggled; she never gave up.”
            “All thirty students raised their hand.”
            “Selflessly dedicated to someone else’s success.”
            “Point out the stars. Provide rockets.”
            “Watch them soar, then demand more.”
            “They doubted, you believed, I succeeded.”

The vocation of a teacher is a precious thing. Many of us take it for granted, and few of us take the time to see its grace in our lives. At SJI International, we’re surrounded by the power and effect of great teachers every day. We’re surrounded by those who bring knowledge to life, set fire to curiosity, and guide inquiry into ever deeper dimensions. Add in wide experience, enthusiasm for learning, a sense of humor, and a real appreciation and love for a wide range of young students - or simply put, a love of kids - and what emerges is someone for whom giving is a habit and mystery is a friend, someone who carries the responsibility lightly but exercises it seriously, someone who knows how to hone the edges of young minds, keep them on their toes, and fill their hungry souls.

Thomas Aquinas called teaching the most generous of all cooperative arts. Like other cooperative arts such as farming, teaching works with what is already there, working with the given soil of individual personalities, backgrounds, learning styles, challenges, gifts, and talents - those who sit staring in front of you at the beginning of each lesson. It’s an art because teaching requires much that cannot be found in books. The best lesson plans are never followed by the best teachers, because lesson plans only set the jazz melody, not the performance. And teaching most generous because it is almost all gift. No one other than students really see it, and most of them forget the details of teachers but remember the power of their effect. A few may return years later to express their gratitude, but that’s about as frequent as children thanking their parents for their upbringing. It’s not really expected either, because it was never done for the thanks it might bring. Teaching, like good parenting, comes from a generous, loving heart that pursues the good of those who have, in God’s Providence, been confided to our care.

I would suggest that the greatest model one might follow as a teacher is that of Jesus. He walked alongside his followers, leading them by familiar roads to unfamiliar places through what he did and said, and in that order. He knew the power and the responsibility of words, their connection to what he did. He spoke to them in a language that others understood, but he also spoke with “authority” - an integrity and wisdom that engages the listener fully. He gave them new ways of thinking and of seeing things, new ways of responding to situations around them, new ways of being in the world. And what He finally gave them, of course, was himself, fully and totally, profoundly and uniquely.

It is that gift of Jesus Christ, that gift of Himself, which we live anew and celebrate at each Mass. It is that same gift of self in our teachers that we celebrated for and among our teachers on Friday morning, October 5th. They are a blessing to be acknowledged.

St. John Baptist de La Salle, our inspiration and Founder, and the Catholic Church’s Patron Saint of All Teachers, in a section of writings about the many miracles that Jesus performed, says this, “You too can perform miracles by touching the hearts of those confided to your care.” If that perspective and invitation is taken seriously, we should realize that the vocation of the teacher is one that continues to be boundless. Wonderful things yet lie ahead.