Undergraduate speaker address Indiana University School of Education Convocation

Saturday, December 15, 2012

By Rebekah Sims, BS’12, special education, BS’12, English Education

It takes great courage to walk into a classroom, look into the faces of the students, and start to teach. Each and every day that I have taught, I felt intimidated by the task before me, and I imagine that this feeling is shared by most new teachers. Yet, the rewards of teaching – watching students come to understand the subject matter, seeing them make connections between their lives and their classroom learning, witnessing their growth, and building relationships with our students – drives us to face the fears and to teach.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes that, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that the students can learn to weave a world for themselves… As good teaches weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is stretched tight. Small wonder, then, that teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. We are reminded by this event that courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that the teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living require.” (Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach)

The school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday is one of those moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it seems possible. Yesterday, we were reminded that the courage to teach can mean facing extreme violence and danger. The students, teachers, staff, and community members who responded to the school shooting showed great courage when violence threatened to rip the fabric of their community apart. The courage to teach involves not only teaching our content areas, but it also involves the courage to be with our students through struggle as well as triumph, and to share in extreme pain as well as joy.

Palmer emphasizes that teachers must have a strong personal investment in teaching and in our students. As teachers, we will all at some point face the loss of a student, and our personal investments in education will be severely tested. It is at these times we will call on our capacity for connectedness to repair what violence has ripped apart. During our teacher education program, we have invested a great deal of time and energy in developing good pedagogy, understanding the history of education, wrestling with different philosophies of teaching, and studying our subject matter with depth. Now, we are faced with the challenge of taking what we have learned into our own classrooms, and weaving the complex web of connections between ourselves, our subjects, and our students so that they learn. We are turning our personal investment in our own education into personal investment in our students’ education. In keeping with this, here are a few things I which I believe are integral to our ability to weave the fabric of education Palmer writes about.

As my cooperating teachers at Brown County High School demonstrated, helping our students discover in themselves the capacity to be kind is as important as teaching our subject matter. In order to do this, we must first discover in ourselves the capacity to love our students (especially the more difficult ones) unconditionally and consistently demonstrate kindness and care for others. This is not achieved by didactic moral teaching, but rather through modeling kindness in our own interactions with students and teachers and through providing opportunities for our students to discover their own ability to be kind and what their kindness means to someone else. When we model kindness and when our students learn to be kind themselves, we being to weave the fabric of community that, according to Palmer, learning and living require.

“The more we love teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be,” writes Palmer. When violence comes into our schools and communities, and even when we are just tired of dealing with an often less-than-friendly educational climate, we have to remember that we model for our students how to engage with other people, and how to engage with forces outside the classroom. We are woven into a community alongside people with whom we disagree, and how we choose to work with the political and social forces outside our class that make teaching difficult is how our students will learn to live and interact with people with whom they disagree.

There are no adequate words to express the grief and loss of the Newton, CT school community. When something of this nature happens in one school, the fear and the grief resonate in communities across the nation. In the face of this situation, we are reminded again of the urgent necessity to create communities based on kindness and respect, and we cannot give up on this hope even when what we build up is ripped apart. We have to continue to do the hard work of teaching and caring for our students, so that they can grow up ready to engage with the world in peaceful and productive ways.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to study here at IU as part of the Community of Teachers program. Within this program, I have learned to create the community that in necessary to facilitate quality learning, through demonstrating and teaching kindness to my students, engaging productively and respectfully with my students and the wider communities, and working to build deep, reciprocal relationships with the people in my classroom and school.

Author Chaim Potok writes, "Human beings do not live forever. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value is there to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? . . .I learned a long time ago that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the man who lives the span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant.” I believe that to put our hearts and souls into teaching is to fill our lives with meaning, so that the quality is indeed immeasurable.