The Consolation of Teaching

Teachers often find themselves the subject of romanticization and lionization by parents of students, social commentators, and distant family relations who cannot help but express their pride in the work and sacrifice required of educators. These encouragements and expressions of admiration or gratitude are kind and well-intentioned, but never quite move me to the extent one might imagine. Maybe that says more about myself, my propensity for self-deprecation, and tendency to be afflicted with imposter syndrome than anything else. There is one thing, though, which never fails to bring real consolation to me in moments of stress, doubt, or wondering “what is it all for?”

The obvious answer, for many teachers, is, of course, their students and the relationships they build with them over the years. This is true of myself as well, but recently my thoughts have dwelt on the everyday interactions, the words my students say, the things they notice, and the things they speak surreptitiously to each other in the back of class when they think, foolishly, that I cannot hear them. These hundreds and thousands of individual points in time are, in many ways, the substance of the relationships that teachers find so rewarding, inspiring, and life-giving. In the moment though, so many of these little points in time are lost, passed by, and not thought much of as the rush of the day sweeps teachers and students along toward the final bell. The question I have posed to myself during this fall semester is simply this: what do these things reveal about my students and their relationship to me as their teacher? 

It is easy to interpret so much of what students do and say as purposefully distracting, defiant, mocking, or disrespectful–and sometimes it is. But a thought occurred to me that suggested another hermeneutic for understanding these myriad interactions. The thought sprang to mind when a student remarked, completely in earnest and without any malice, that, when I walk outside on the blacktop, my feet “look huge” (apparently the contrast of white shoes on the black asphalt really brings out the absurd proportions of my lower extremities). This comment sent the class, and me, into a fit of laughter and a brief exchange between myself, feigning indignation, and this student, holding to their opinion while attempting to apologize. The class settled after a minute and the levity introduced by that precocious remark imbued the entire class period with good feeling in unique and beautiful way. 

Now this is silliness, but it made me think back on all of the equally silly things my students take note of and feel the need to comment on over the course of any given year. From the color of my thermos to the quality of my handwriting on the whiteboard; from the length of my hair and beard (God forbid I ever shave without giving them warning ahead of time), to my “pink” pants worn every Friday (they are coral, actually), my students notice everything. They watch, listen, and make mental note of all things at all times. The crucial element in this student-teacher relationship is how I choose to interpret this fact. It could be that they are attentive to such a degree for the purpose of having great, one-line zingers that cut me off at the knees (or feet). My thoughts of late have led me to conclude differently though. It may be that teachers are some of the most important people in students’ lives and, as a result, an inordinate amount of their attention is dedicated to noticing the smallest, most mundane of details about them. 

For their attention and love of us to be meaningful beyond their time in our classrooms, we must take their attention, their love, and direct it toward the highest and the best of things.

I am certain that such a painfully obvious statement does not require so many words to articulate, but I am also painfully aware of how often I lose sight of it as a fact. The irony of this dynamic is that the very role that puts teachers front and center in their students’ view for most of their waking hours also precludes teachers, due to the daily rush and busyness, from taking time to appreciate all that they come to mean to their students. My students remember the names of my siblings and children. They want to hear stories of my childhood and in response tell me stories of their own families. They want to know if I will be at the basketball game or if I can come to their family Christmas party. They also make statements like “Mr. Nugent, you look so weird!” in response to my getting a haircut after many months of neglect. They do not always have the “right” words–their ability to communicate the truth in their hearts is commensurate with their maturity and teenage self-consciousness. But if I take a moment to consider the meaning of their attention, I cannot interpret it as anything other than affection, even love. 

There is consolation and a weight of responsibility in being the object of so many young people’s attention for so many hours of so many days. It is a consolation to know that you matter so deeply to such tender, earnest, and youthful souls. No teacher is free of vanity, but this feeling is greater than mere self-love, because alongside that consolation is the ever-present awareness that we (I) must lead and teach them well. For their attention and love of us to be meaningful beyond their time in our classrooms, we must take their attention, their love, and direct it toward the highest and the best of things. As I continue with the year, I hope my students are learning to love the things they ought, and I hope I learn to treasure their attention, and thinly veiled affections, in the way that I ought.