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Significance And Insignificance, Hope And Despair, Enthusiasm And Burnout, Caring And Cynicism, And Other Realities Of The Teaching Life

December 12, 2010

The most important function of education at any level is to develop the personality of the individual and the significance of his [or her] life to himself [or herself] and to others.
• Grayson Kirk*

Enthusiasm releases the drive to carry you over obstacles and adds significance to all you do.
• Norman Vincent Peale

When I was writing a daily blog last academic year, I seldom worried about whether my words were significant. I had to write something every day and so I did. Now that I have become an occasional poster who continues to wonder how I found the time to write every day, I am struck by how many posts I begin and never finish. They don’t seem weighty enough and they drift away like smoke. Perhaps I will revisit them and infuse them with meaning, but because I don’t have to, I don’t.

Sometimes, though, thoughts come together and what was smoke becomes a fire. While these connections may seem tenuous to an outsider, it seems worthwhile to try to give them substance. The word significant has been on my mind this week. I recently had several conversations with other teachers and much of our talk circled around the impossibility of ever feeling as though we are doing a good enough job.

Instead, our failures torment us in ways difficult for others—even some of our colleagues—to understand. “You care too much.” “Don’t take it personally.” “Forget about it and move on.” These and many other pieces of well-meaning advice echo in our conversations as we share our frustrations. We do care, we do take things personally, and we cannot forget about things and move on. We want to understand. We want to continue to give of ourselves while taking care of ourselves as well. We don’t want to become hardened to a world that needs the softness of our spirits. We want to provide hope and enthusiasm and caring. We want our actions to be significant in the lives of the learners with whom we work.

The significance of a man [or woman] is not in what s/he attains, but rather what s/he longs to attain.
• Kahlil Gibran

Some years ago, during a time when my colleagues and I who worked in a high school dropout prevention program were trying to justify—and provide significance for—the value of our program, one of my students brought in this excerpt from a speech, “Citizenship in a Republic,” that Theodore Roosevelt gave at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910:

 
It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.


I kept a copy of Roosevelt’s words on the wall next to my desk to remind me that it can be easy for those who are not doing the work—whatever it is—to criticize those who are. It can also be easy for those who are not doing the work to take for granted the efforts of those who are, to minimize the cost of sustaining enthusiasm for whatever it is that requires the commitment of the doer. Sustaining enthusiasm requires caring and personal involvement regardless of the task. Systems and institutions succeed because there are individuals committed to insuring that success.

 
I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.
• Pablo Casals

I don’t have any answers regarding ways to maintain personal enthusiasm for your work without losing yourself in the tasks. I only know that I cannot give all of myself to my work. I must be an artist. I must be a poet. These things are not separate from my life as an educator; instead, they are crucial elements of creating a wholeness of being that feeds my enthusiasm and my caring. I am significant to myself whether or not anything I do matters to anyone else.

Only those who truly love and who are truly strong can sustain their lives as a dream. You dwell in your own enchantment. Life throws stones at you, but your love and your dream change those stones into flowers of discovery. Even if you lose, or are defeated by things, your triumph will always be exemplary. And if no one knows it, then there are places that do. People like you enrich the dreams of the worlds, and it is dreams that create history. People like you are unknowing transformers of things, protected by your own fairytale, by love.
• Ben Okri, Nigerian author

What is it that you do that imbues your life with significance? What do you—can you—do to maintain your hopefulness, enthusiasm, and caring whether or not the world seems to recognize their value?

If, after all, men [or women] cannot always make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one.
• Albert Camus

Every memorable act in the history of the world is a triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it because it gives any challenge or any occupation, no matter how frightening or difficult, a new meaning. Without enthusiasm, you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, but with it you can accomplish miracles.
• Og Mandino

* I must rant briefly. I am well aware of the claim that writers once-upon-a-time used “he” to refer to everyone. I have, however, read enough history to know that many of them did not mean any such kind of inclusiveness and considered the ladies an unnecessary appendage when it came to matters of import, not to be considered in the world of manwork (keep cooking and cleaning and childbearing, and don’t worry your pretty little head about all the rest).

I remember quite clearly feeling disincluded/unincluded (yes, I realize that the opposite of included is excluded, but that doesn’t really say what I want and as I search for the other two words, I find that they’ve been used by others—just you wait and see—they shall some day be legitimized!) as a child when “he” was pronounous universalis. There are people who still argue for him, whining about awkwardness and such. Get over it. Or substitute she/her/women/etc. and see how you feel. “All women are created equal” doesn’t really make the guys feel included, now does it?

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