Not Just a Teacher

Early Saturday morning, Phillip and I sat together sharing coffee and one of our “good visits,” before we each lapsed into the comfortable silence long years of loving relationship can invite. Eventually, I asked him what he was thinking about.

“Pencils,” he said.

“Pencils?” Where could this be leading?

“Yeah…I was wondering why one of my kids never has a pencil in class.” He paused. “Is it because his family is too poor? Can they really not afford pencils?”

My husband teaches science in a small-town high school. He chose the district because of its small size, believing it would give him opportunities to know the students, their families, and his colleagues, that a mega-school in a sprawling district wouldn’t afford. In our state, this meant a lower salary than a wealthy, larger district could pay, but Phillip really wanted the sense of community and collegiality, so he took less pay and has been happy with his work and his colleagues.

He is a good teacher: eloquent, elegant, and focused on his students’ sense of confidence and delight for a subject area that gives Phillip joy, but what is most indicative of his approach as an educator is this sense of deep compassion for his students’ well-being, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

He’ll tease and joke with his students, but he will never bully, embarrass, or humiliate them. He’ll hold them accountable to high expectations for learning the material and fairly grade their effort, but students who earn low grades are as likely to hang around Phillip’s room before and after school as are the students who excel. He’s taught guitar to kids who asked to learn, not for a fee or because it was required of him, but because he wants his students to name and develop their gifts, whether those gifts are specifically science-related or not.

Last week, Phillip gracefully agreed to wear a ridiculous costume and return to school one night for a Homecoming Week skit some students had written. Another night he returned to supervise a class’s attempts at building their Homecoming float.

Phillip’s students do well, but it pleases my heart that he is remembered for his kindness. Former students drop by our house at holiday and vacation times to share their current adventures, studies, and goals, and Phillip welcomes them with the hospitality I imagine he showed them when they were high school students. Above all, he is a good listener; he holds their stories in the high regard they deserve, and so teaches his kids the very important lesson that they matter. Regardless of their home situation, their academic success or lack of it, their social standing, their physical appearance or athletic prowess, they matter. Their feelings and thoughts are worth being heard respectfully and considered deeply.

Like most teachers, Phillip’s time away from school is often spent preparing for the next class, the next week, the next year. But this means so much more than taking ongoing classes, designing curriculum, reviewing learning materials, and updating licenses. It means lying awake at night and worrying about ways to connect with students who are troubled or lonely. It means planning for meetings with parents who are angry, abusive, demanding, or distant towards their children.

It means pondering and creating a way to preserve a child’s dignity while giving him a coat, a meal–or a pencil–that will boost his spirit, ensure his physical comfort, and allow her to feel important, safe, heard, and ready to learn.

One moment of such regard can change a life; I have seen it and heard it over and over from people engaging in life review as their death takes shape and approaches. People recall moments when a teacher’s glance, note, comments, praise, and focus changed their lives. Altered their lives’ direction. Saved their lives. Or made them the person who could save his or her own life. Of course, a teacher’s neglect and negative energy can do great damage, but the well-intended and good educators far outweigh the bad, and we know it.

Teachers have recently, again, come under fire undeservedly and simplistically, as scapegoats for others’ poor decisions. The list denigrating educators is endless, vague, and finally illogical, like blaming a middle class for Wall Street’s greed. Teachers stand out as easy targets for the bullies and crooks who sadly wield power in much of our current government and media, and we should beware of such behavior and castigation of their efforts and energy.

We are quick to call police officers, fire fighters, and military personnel our heroes, but every day, in myriad classrooms, teachers are offering the look, the comment, the listening–and the pencil–that saves a life and tells a child she is important; he is heard; they matter.

I married a teacher. He is intelligent, funny, and compassionate. He listens deeply, and tends his students’ learning and sense of self-worth diligently. He values their minds, bodies, and spirits. He safeguards their dignity.

He is my hero.

5 thoughts on “Not Just a Teacher

  1. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful way to honor Phillip and all the other teachers out there who are saving students one at a time. The other day you wrote an essay about St Francis and mentioned a few other “saints.” One of them was St. Therese, the Little Flower, who wrote about longing to find “the little way” (back) to God. Well, this essay reminds me of all the people like Phillip (and you, when you were teaching) who are doing just that. Touching a life even briefly leaves an indelible imprint on a young soul and mind. I totally agree with your beautiful, moving essay. After my parents, the biggest influences on who I am today are the few teachers who noticed me and drew me out of my silent shell, with encouraging, non judgmental, kindness.

  2. Thank you, Matt. I think most of us try to create nurturing exchanges in whatever work we do, but it doesn’t seem like teachers’ efforts–and results– are being respected or acknowledged a lot in the current political environment. (You’re the same kind of professor yourself!)

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