One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to imagine what might be and yet be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something and how to say goodbye.
You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenges. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight and violence with clarity.
In this way you create a community and you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You model with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future. Without such a model, it is nearly impossible for a young person to imagine that such a community, or relationship, is possible.
You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing, now, with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us, in this world that we share, need this sort of gift daily.
Starting The School Day
So, before you enter the classroom, or maybe before you enter the school building, stop in a safe location, maybe near a tree or a place with a pleasing view, close your eyes, and take 2 deep breaths. You might then pick one area of your body to focus on ⎼ the area around your eyes or mouth, your shoulders or belly ⎼ and simply feel how the area expands as you breathe in, and relaxes, settles down as you breathe out.
You might imagine yourself in the classroom ⎼ calm, ready to listen to your students, emotionally strong. Then bring to mind your students. Imagine how they walk, stand, enter the classroom. If you feel tension with anyone, bring him or her to mind. Imagine how they might feel, and that they feel and think, in a manner similar to, yet different from, your own. Hold them in your heart for a moment.
Then take another breath in and out. Open your eyes and look around you, noticing how you feel.
In this way you feel present and more aware of the humanity of your students. You might start the class with a story related to the material of the lesson you plan to teach, or with a mindfulness exercise, or an open-ended, thought provoking question so you acknowledge and engage the students right away. You show you value their insights and care about them
My First Teaching Assignment
My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in the bush in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees” but I don’t know if that was true or not.
To get rid of the bees, I got out insect spray that I had somehow acquired and gathered my students, in a line, outside the classroom door. Each was armed with a bucket of water to throw on the bees, and me, in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I then entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm from the room. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.
The next day, my neighbor, the paramount chief (one of the five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and several indigenous Sierra Leonean languages. She certainly did not speak English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende.
She was in trouble. Another swarm of bees had invaded the hut where the chief’s beer and food were stored, and the maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility. When she had heard how I had chased the bees from my classroom, she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees ⎼ but without using the spray or protective clothing.
It didn’t work. She was stung twenty to thirty times and was possibly in shock. The chief asked me to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. There was a shaman living near the village, but no medical doctor within hours. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin — I did what I could, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.
Three or four days later, while I was relaxing on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people on the road that ran down the middle of the village. I lived in the Paramount Chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and one person, a woman, left the group on her own and walked towards me. I got up to meet her.
It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I don’t know if what I gave the chief helped cure her; more likely, it was her own inner strength or her belief in the power of the medications.
She walked up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English. Good English. I started crying. And laughing. Then came a huge celebration.
After that, she no longer made fun of me. The village became, for me, a community. When I got extremely sick a few months later, she returned the favor and helped me get to a doctor.
We have to model in our classrooms the deepest lessons we want to teach. The world is a miraculous place, if only we can imagine it and act to make it so.
About The Author
Ira Rabois taught English, philosophy, psychology, drama and the martial arts at the Lehman Alternative Community School for 27 years and is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching and his website is irarabois.com.
[This post is an update of one published by Open Thought Vortex Literary Magazine and Ira’s website.]
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