blessed unrest

teacher agonistes

5:00 AM on the first day of school and I can’t sleep. Some things never change. Even after a life in school, the night before the new year starts is different. It’s all possibility, all the way down. Everyone has an A, even me. All of the stories wait to be told again…or left in their boxes, so new stories can be heard for the first time.

I didn’t teach over the summer for the first time in eight years. I needed the time away. Needed the silence after so many days of feeling like my voice had to be heard, because I was scared of what would happen if it wasn’t. I had begun — again — to fall into the trap of thinking that if I hadn’t said it in front of a whiteboard, it hadn’t been taught. Forgetting — again — that teaching and learning might happen in the same space, but they aren’t connected causally, not always, not even usually. What I say isn’t the same as what you learn. Or if you learn. Forget that, o teacher, and become a sounding brass, a tinkling cymbal. That was me for a while there. Jingle jangle.

I know I’m being too hard on myself. That’s part of teaching too: it’s a prereq. Once you really start to know the stakes of what you get up each morning to go do, how can it not be. But the stakes — the investment student attention represents — the awesome responsibility of being listened to and trusted as having something worth learning to share — can make us shrill, wound tight, hoarse from barking over and over again what we know needs to be barked. And the more we bark, as any dog knows, the less we are heard.

So I have more voices in my curriculum this year than ever before. More opportunities for my students to hear from other perspectives. Readings from more diverse authors; expectations to show up for more of the plays and movies and speakers and conversations that my astoundingly rich university offers up, nearly every week. More requirements to go out and hear someone else’s life and bring it back to class so we can know what it says. Or don’t: treasure it in your heart, learn the thing no one else can, in a not-class moment when no one else will ever know you were listening.

It’s more important now than ever, student, that you be open. Important that when we read On Tyranny, and visit with its author in September, we open our eyes to the transformations that are moving under our feet. That we mind what we can accommodate, and decide with resolve what we never will, no matter what. This is not normal. We shall not let it be.

I have finally found a way to invite FARM Cafe into our classroom: our town’s wondrous pay-as-you-can restaurant (commitment in community-building, experiment in living what you believe about the way the world should work, utopian fever-dream that is somehow in the black). My students will eat there, volunteer there, lurk and loaf and think there. Listen to what they hope and fear about the people they meet there. Reflect on what it means about the stories they bring to their work with other peoples’ children.

Here’s another change: I’m not going to tell you what the last night’s reading said this year. I’m going to answer your questions about it, sure, and I’m going to hold a space for you to learn what others thought it meant. But I’m going to value your ability to figure it out for yourself more than ever before.

Because I understand that when I retell you what you worked your hardest last night to figure out, I am really telling you that I don’t trust you alone with your own mind. I am really telling you that until I say it, it’s not worth knowing. I am going to act on that understanding by letting you do what you came here to do: change. Grow. Develop new capacities, not just show off the ones you’ve had since grade school.

For that to happen, I’ve got to let you work as hard as you can. Let you be uncomfortable at the edge of your competence to work, and let myself be uncomfortable at the edge of mine (to let you).

I’m opening my classroom to my world this semester too. Inviting any of my faculty colleagues to join my class, whenever they wish, without notice, and asking if they’d consider extending me the same courtesy. As I wrote them last week:

This expressly isn’t for any evaluative purpose, or “professional development,” and certainly not to write peer observation or any such thing. I don’t promise to show you an exemplary class and don’t expect you to have one ready for me to see (I assume we’re already impressed with each other).

I have simply realized that I am energized and relaxed by witnessing other people do what I do too, and I think it’s pretty perverse that the first thing school does with competent teachers is ensure they never get to see each other work except to evaluate each other. So that stinks, and I’d love to change it, for my own well-being. I’d also like to start to create and model for my students the kind of teaching community that I think they will need to sustain themselves when they hit the schools. We need each other more than ever. (No one else is coming for us.)

I have always had a thing about closing the classroom door before class can happen. My students must think it odd. As if the door were some kind of airlock; as if we couldn’t do what we came to do until we got the pressure right. I talked game about the closed door reminding me of the responsibility I was entrusted with to make good decisions on their behalf. That was true, and remains so — but it’s not the truest part of it. I just hated the feeling of leaking into the hall, of being heard out of context, judged. Seen doing the thing I spend my life doing.

I have come to understand that I need it. I need other people in my teaching. Not just students. Especially not students: it’s not their job to do anything but learn, and whatever they might do to sustain my work is incidental to their reason for being. No, I need my teaching to leak, to be witnessed by those who do it too. And I need to be around others who do it, if only to taste that singular teacher luxury of inhabiting a learning space I’m not primarily responsible for maintaining. I don’t know how it works, I just know it does.

Yeah, it’s a lot. I didn’t need to do all of this to my curriculum this year. It was all in the can, and my student evals were sky high. Why mess with it? When you take into account how much those evals matter to my own professional well-being, it’s sort of foolish not to just push play again on the same jokes from last year, go to sleep, and wake up when it’s Christmas.

But I just can’t, and if you’re a teacher, I think neither can you. Doing that is a living death, for people like us. Because even if it gives us “more time to do research” (or watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), it removes us from what Doris Santoro wonderfully calls the “moral rewards” of teaching. The rewards of being present at the creation, or the uncovering, of something genuinely unexpected. Something precious that couldn’t happen without us showing up in that particular way on that particular day, then clearing the lane for the students to do what only they can do.

The unaccountable, the surprise, the peripheral, the jouissant: name it as fancy as you want, but it’s what we’re in the business of cultivating and honoring. If the curriculum is tight, it’s stale. If you’re positive that you know what you’re measuring and how to make it materialize, you’re not really teaching, because no one is really learning. It’s a drill, not live-fire. And if you’re not fully living into your part in it today, right in the place you stand, they can’t either.

Martha Graham gets quoted a lot on creativity, but the whole conversation doesn’t. Here it is – with Agnes deMille, while struggling over choreography of Oklahoma!:

I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be.

Martha said to me, very quietly: “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. As for you, Agnes, you have so far used about one-third of your talent.”

“But,” I said, “when I see my work I take for granted what other people value in it. I see only its ineptitude, inorganic flaws, and crudities. I am not pleased or satisfied.”

“No artist is pleased.”

“But then there is no satisfaction?”

“No satisfaction whatever at any time,” she cried out passionately. “There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

And I have to give Sondheim the last word:

Anything you do
Let it come from you
Then it will be new
Give us more to see

Have a great year, y’all.

Image from Smithsonian Magazine, with thanks.



One response to “blessed unrest”

  1. A courageous approach and a challenge to your students.
    It is not easy to reflect on teaching and learning;on how these two are not in direct proportion to each other. It takes time, of which there is so little in an academic setting to observe learning when one is put upon with expectations to “Teach” from so many different arenas.
    I am so happy to see it in writing, and it brings to mind the many conversations we have had at Field in the small studio on Wyoming Ave. Why am I not surprised at the author of this piece!
    So this is the first year in 39 that I am not with my colleagues going through the first weeks of prepping to start classes. It is the year that a student of mine from 7th grade on who through the years discovered that he too would wants to teach and work in the field of pottery. He is now responsible for teaching the students in Ceramic at Field. Your words are food for thought!
    Thank you

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