Defining moments

6th June 2014 at 01:00

After many years in the classroom, we have seen just about every possible behaviour among our students. We have heard every excuse. We have encountered every attitude, from eager to curious to perplexed, indifferent, apprehensive, suspicious, openly sceptical and altogether hostile.

If we find, as a result, that our professional lives have become predictable, and if our fires have gone out, then a way of rekindling them may lie in altering our perspective - by remembering what it was like to be a student and revisiting what it was about learning that inspired and interested us then.

I recall my English teacher, for example, who one day, upon seeing my eyes glaze over as she spoke about gerunds and adverbial connectives, said something that is as relevant to me today as it was many years ago: "Mr Salwak, you don't know enough to be bored."

I think of my best undergraduate teachers, who affirmed my decision to go to graduate school and, regardless of how they felt, always returned graded assignments promptly and were fully prepared for the day's discussions.

I remember and still claim the promise of one of my graduate professors who, at the end of the semester, said to me six words that struck me with the force of a revelation. "You have earned a B+ but I'm giving you an A because [and here are the six words] I think you have the potential."

Remembering these nudges, encouragements and guiding hands can help us, as teachers, to value our role and the way in which even seemingly insignificant interactions with our students can inspire them for a lifetime. What other profession offers such profound rewards?

If we begin to feel the professional fatigue that precedes burnout, it might also help to remember how far we have come to be in our current positions.

As a student, the distance between my teachers and the front row of desks where I sat was a mere eight feet, but I knew it would take many years and much effort to cross that divide and earn the inestimable privilege of being on the other side. Merely standing there can remind us of our journey and the lessons we can pass on to our students.

But perhaps the best way to re-energise ourselves is to remember that one of our chief goals is to gain the trust of the students we serve. We gain it by being honest, by being who we say we are, by doing what we say we are going to do and by showing respect to everyone. We demonstrate how highly we value that trust by valuing the subjects we teach. That means we do not take the subject matter, the students, the classroom experience or our own good fortune to be a part of it all for granted.

Our profession is not a job; it is a way of life with its own rhythm and customs and rules. Waxing and waning is a normal feature of that rhythm and periods of low energy can be followed by times of remarkable accomplishment. What is certain is that the best teachers are always renewing themselves. They teach out of passion. The more powerful the passion, the more powerful the drive to teach.

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US

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