This Teacher’s Attitude

October 20, 2009

Since this week’s focus is on teacher attitude, I’m going to share some beliefs that affect my attitude. This is dangerous. I like teaching, and I may end up sounding like a bad Hallmark card or a particularly cheesy self-help book. My enthusiasm may come across as clichéd—the sort of thing you’d expect a teacher to say—but there can be truth even in clichés. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that what is not spoken from the heart will not reach the heart of the listener. These words are from my heart, and while I am sometimes cynical and discouraged, I am almost always hopeful, and that hope is at the heart of my enthusiasm.

I’m participating in an art exhibit currently, “The Arts of Peace: Visions of Hope for the World.” I ask visitors to the gallery to add their thoughts in words or images to a collaborative piece that represents visions of hope for the world. I believe that education is part of that hope, and that part of my job as a teacher is to inspire possibility and help keep hope alive. This is sometimes difficult.

It is easier to be sad than to be happy. It is easier to be cynical and discouraged than to be enthusiastic. It is easier to wallow in hopelessness than to be hopeful. Some days being hopeful and enthusiastic and cheerful are just plain hard work. I have to deliberately choose to find the joy in my job. Some days are wonderful all by themselves, but some days are wonderful because I have decided that they will be. And that’s the first belief that affects my attitude. Life can suck, but my attitude doesn’t have to reflect it, especially not in the classroom. My students need better from me.

My mother is filled with wisdom that comes from closely observing the world and from thinking about what she sees, hears, and experiences. And that’s another of my beliefs: The world is vastly interesting for anyone who really sees it. I am seldom bored. I am interested. I observe. I listen. I read. I wonder. I question. Being interested helps keep me happy. Life is a treasure hunt for understanding, and while I doubt that I will ever have enough answers to satisfy me, it is the search that matters.

My third belief is linked to a story my mother told me. One of her friends called her in tears, distraught because someone had stolen her purse and was using her driver’s license and her credit cards and even her social security number. This friend kept crying to my mother that her identity had been stolen. Here’s what my mother said about the incident: “Even while I comforted her and told her she would get past this, I couldn’t help thinking that we get very upset about this kind of identity theft, and yet every day we allow other people to steal our personal identity when we compromise who we are or what we want to do or be because of someone else’s expectations or because we’re afraid that they won’t like us or we’re worried that what we want to do will seem silly or impossible to accomplish.”

My mother was speaking from her heart. It isn’t easy to grow old in our society, particularly if you are still active and still talented, and still want to share your talents with the world. There are times when it seems that you are always too something: too young or too old or too inexperienced or too unrealistic about your hopes and dreams for your life. So here’s another of my beliefs: Life is tough sometimes if you aren’t independently wealthy and you have to pay everyday bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision of who you are and what you can be. It’s not really true that any of us can be anything we want to be—the NBA is unlikely to have wanted me no matter how much I wanted it since I am a rather short woman—but each of us can be far more than we imagine if we accept that some of the things we choose to do will feed our souls, but not our pocketbooks.

Several years ago I wrote a poem during a time when I was finding it particularly difficult to remain true to myself and my vision for my life. This is another of my beliefs. It is more challenging to live in personal truth than you might think. No matter how old you are, there are likely to be well-meaning people who think that they know better than you do what you ought to be doing with your life.

The poem is called “A Call from Grace,” and I was inspired to write it when I heard a television commentator discussing a celebrity’s fall from grace after she’d been arrested. I heard those words “a fall from grace,” and I thought how often we are called from our own grace and how difficult it is to maintain a grace•full life.

A Call from Grace

Most of us don’t fall from grace in our lives just because. . .
We fall because of siren calls.
We fall because of contemptuous calls.
We fall because of disparaging,
disinterested voices,
Calls that lead us to believe that
the grace,
the truth,
the vocation of our lives
mean nothing.
We allow ourselves to be called—not to—but away
from what we know to be meaningful
by those who ask that we prove it,
or who tell us that we
make a difference.
If we heed their calls, we never will.

The late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau followed his dreams throughout his life, and often faced difficulties. He was asked why he persisted despite them, and he replied: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

Here is what I believe to be the true message needed in every student’s education: You matter. Your learning and growth matter. What you do matters. How you live your life matters. Your small acts of kindness and goodness and truth and beauty and hopefulness can change the world. These are all clichés. But they are all true.

What are your hopes for yourself and for the world?

The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope.
• Barbara Kingsolver


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