Thursday, June 14, 2012

Don't Let This Happen to You

To close out my reflections on teachers' "losing heart," on their being vulnerable and exposed on a painfully personal level, I reluctantly return to the advice given to me at the dawn of my career and which I passed on to you near the beginning of this blog: "You can't teach'em if you don't love'm."

On the one hand, I stand by that advice. On the other hand, -- and I'm surprised no one has called me out on this -- I'm not sure I can adequately define what is meant by "love" in this context. On yet another hand, I see it as a soggy piece of sentimentality, best suited for a Hallmark card with two kittens on the front, one wearing a tiny mortar-board hat.

I'll start with a cautionary tale for new teachers. If you see yourself in the following characterization, you should make some changes immediately.

Sometimes an unhealthy emotional neediness can disguise itself as love. I'm reminded of  Professor Levy in Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors. He says that "when we fall in love we are seeking to re-find all or some of the people to whom we were attached as children. On the other hand, we ask of our beloved to correct all of the wrongs that these early parents or siblings inflicted on us."
The professor concludes that love contains the contradiction of returning to the past while attempting to undo the past. First, that sounds like an epic undertaking in reality, here in the world of 98.6. Second, maybe that has something to do with Levy's eventual fate (see the movie!).

Let's think of this condition through a teacher's eyes: There is, let's say, a vacuum in you created by neglect or abuse or even someone's inability either to love you or to communicate that love. At some point, your withered heart is kindled by, as Parker Palmer says, a "passion for a subject." Eventually, fueled by this passion, you find yourself in a room with many people, generally younger than you, all looking at you with what is or can appear to be respect, admiration, affection and -- dare we say it? -- even love.

(With only the slightest bit of attentiveness, we find that not all those adoring gazes are authentic, that many students learn early to create a face teachers feel more inclined to bless with good grades. Once I became a serious college student, I rewarded pretty much every professor -- regardless of how I felt about them -- with steady, but not creepy eye contact and a slight smile that was intended to say, "Keep it goin,' Bro. I'm listening.")

Anyway, whatever is truly behind those eyes, they speak love to the needy teacher. The teacher finally feels warm and at home. The teacher was pretty sure she should have been loved all this time, and now her pumpkin has at long last been turned into a chariot. 

Seen from a less enchanted, more detached perspective, however, a captive audience is merely creating an illusion that her existential craving is being assuaged. They are her students and they no doubt care for her, but they provide absolutely no help in healing that Snowden's wound she's hiding.

What would she not do to hold on to that spell? With all good intentions, she will put her students' perceived affections ahead of their learning. She coddles and flatters, demanding little while rewarding everything, and tries to make herself indispensable to them, to do for them what other teachers can't. She violates professional boundaries by confiding in them, by talking to them as if they are her peers. She listens to them complain about the bad ol' other teachers and adds her own resentments and enlists their collective support in whatever wars she has with colleagues or administrators.

She is the mother hen who, under the guise of gathering her brood under her protective wings, suffocates them instead.

How little will it take to break this spell and how will she live to teach another day? It takes next to nothing. A small voice of dissent. A slight or just a perceived slight. A critical remark from one of her darlings. A look of contempt. Any of these can send her hurtling back to the pumpkin and the ashes.

Now here is a teacher who has truly lost heart and who must seriously rethink that fuzzy advice, "You can't teach'em if you don't love'm."

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