Monday, June 11, 2012

Icarus in the Classroom

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer says "Many of us become teachers for reasons of the heart, animated by a passion for some subject and for helping people learn."

Palmer goes on to say that because of its personal and public nature, teaching is a "daily exercise in vulnerability," which can lead us to "lose heart." Thus we become poisoned by the wine that initially intoxicated us. The lamp we thought would help illuminate the world either blows up in our face or is extinguished far too soon.

I know exactly what Palmer is talking about and I'd like to expand on his observations a bit to make them more tangible, especially for beginning teachers. For certain kinds of teachers, I think it is critical to think very carefully about this topic.

Let's begin with "animated by a passion for some subject." As I noted in an earlier post, my passion for reading transformed me into a person awfully susceptible to an English major. Once I was a sophomore in college, the flames of my passion were fanned by the venerable Mr. Byrne, my British lit professor.

At that point, the English major chose me. Brought up in something of an evangelical environment probably contributed to my considering this process a Calling, a beckoning from and toward something higher.

It took me seven years to get from Mr. Byrne to my doctorate, and not once during that time did I look back. Not once did I hesitate to fulfill every nickel-and-dime, chicken-shit requirement for every major and degree I conquered or earned along the way.

I did all of this -- like thousands of others -- knowing there would be no material reward. I labored early and late for love and not for money. This is how I was fueled by my "passion for some subject."

So . . .  at the end of it I am anointed Dr. Starling and am sent in a chariot of fire to my first classroom, in my case, fortunately, at a somewhat selective four-year college. "Intoxication" may be one of the nice ways to describe the good days when my students seemed to share my passion, and ideas flew and grew around the room, and the conversations soared far beyond those we tend to have with grown-ups at meet-and-greets and cocktail parties and receptions and such.

Someone should have made me reread the Icarus story.

I began to think it was about me. I thought that if I went away, the magic would go away.

Some days, though, the magic vanished while I was still right there in the classroom. My students hadn't read, or did read and didn't like it, or they found something offensive in what they read or in what I said about what they read. Some days they were sullen and withdrawn. Some days they were high and/or hungover. Some days they talked and laughed as if I didn't exist. Some days, no matter how shrill my appreciation or penetrating my insights or evocative my questions, they simply didn't care.

This was no way to respond to my Calling!

One time one of them actually picked her head up off her desk and looked at me, smiling, and said, "Doc, we really don't care."

All these things happened in 1981 and again in 2012 and in every year in between. This is when Icarus plummets seaward and "everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster."

Teachers' responses to this rejection can be placed on a spectrum that runs from vampirism to detachment, but they almost all result in a loss of heart, burnout and a failure to teach. And, there's still no material reward!

1 comment:

  1. I know this type of burn out happens everywhere, (it happened to me last year after 15 years, but I am better now) but I am wondering if these privileged college students made it even more difficult. I found that when I attended a college made mostly for the privileged the majority of students didn't care about class (as they were going to work for dad after school) and nothing, not even the best professor in the world could have made a difference. We all hit a road block, tough student, political red tape that burns us out but I have found if your heart is in it, and you stick it out it will get better. If your heart is not in it, you won't even make it to your fifth year.