Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sermon: "Vocation: Teaching" (Delivered 9-8-13)

For the reading I adapted a spoken word performance piece by the writer, education activist, and slam poet Taylor Mali.  Taylor Mali had a nine year career as a high school teacher before becoming a full-time poet, author, and performer.  Mali has a local connection having earned his Masters degree in English and Creative Writing from Kansas State University.  There were some vexing questions concerning how to adapt his most famous slam poem “What Teachers Make,” especially considering it ends with his middle finger waving defiantly in the air. 

Please take a moment to watch Taylor Mali perform What Teachers Make.

There is an old saying that in a Unitarian Universalist church, whatever topic the minister chooses for the service, there is certain to be at least one person in the congregation that morning who is an expert on that subject.  Well, last week as we were kicking off this sermon series on vocation I walked into the sanctuary a few minutes before the first service and saw two of our members, both vocational psychologists, sitting next to each other, chatting.

This morning I feel like I’m stepping out of the frying pan and into the fire.  I want to start this morning by recognizing that I am going to speak about teaching to a congregation that includes dozens and dozens of professional teachers and educators:  early childhood educators and university professors and every age and stage between; teachers of the sciences and social studies and math and business and medicine; teachers of foreign languages and dead languages, of English and English as a second language; teachers of music, art, and athletics; teachers of teachers.  We have brand new teachers just at the very beginning of their careers and we have retired teachers who dedicated decade after decade to the profession teaching.

Allow me to take a moment to credential myself.  I am, first of all, the son of two teachers.  My mother had a career teaching high school English and drama that spanned four decades.  She was also a stalwart member of the teacher’s union, serving as a union representative when teachers in her district filed grievances.  My father taught physics over a span of four decades, first at the university level at MIT, and then at a high school in the Boston area.

I grew up with the tremendous privilege of attending school in one of the nation’s very best public school systems, a school system that spared no expense when it came to investing in education.  (Wayland ranks as the 7th best school system in the state.)  While there may be no such thing as utopia, I grew up in a community that endeavored to create one in its schools.  I remember the teachers I had growing up as intensely devoted, deeply caring, frequently inspiring, and often courageous.  Education was a priority where I was raised.

I have frequently spoken about the impact that my Unitarian Universalist church community had in my life during my childhood years.  School and church sometimes mingled together.  Remember, it was a Unitarian, Horace Mann, who was the father of universal public education in the United States and also a driving force for the professionalization of teaching.  The Unitarian church of my childhood had quite a number of my teachers as members.  (In one of the very first churches I served as a student minister, several of my elementary school teachers were parishioners!)

After high school I went to a college that was founded by a Unitarian minister.  This college ranks extremely high, year after year, on the Princeton Review’s list of schools that offer the best classroom experience.  (It also places high on the Princeton Review’s annual list of colleges whose students can be described as “Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking Vegetarians” but that's a topic for another day.)  To this day, I regard many of my elementary, middle school, and high school teachers as well as my professors in college and grad school as some of the most inspiring people I’ve known.

Over the past several weeks I’ve spoken with more than a dozen professional teachers in this congregation.  While they only represent a fraction, a small sliver, of the teachers in this community, I think their responses are powerful and instructive.  I asked each of the teachers a series of four questions:  What is something that you wish everyone understood about teachers?  How did you discover your calling to teach?  What is your sense of the spirituality of teaching?  And, what is something that the teachers in the worshiping congregation would want me to say?

The number one thing our teachers wanted people to know about their work is that it is hard.  It is a challenging profession.  Several teachers spoke of the personal investment of being a teacher.  “Teachers refer to their students as ‘my kids’ and really see them that way.  They stay up nights worrying about their students because they care about their futures.  Nothing is more rewarding for a teacher than a note or letter from a parent or student saying, ‘Thanks. You made a real impact on me.’”

Another teacher reflected about this place of intersection between the challenge of teaching and the inner demands it makes.  He wanted others to know that teachers are always onstage, always on display, and have to be on-guard.  Everything a teacher says has an exponent attached to it.  At the beginning of his career, one teacher told me, he censored himself in order to feel safe being constantly onstage, but this resulted in a kind of detachment that didn’t serve his students well.  Successful teachers, he said, develop a persona that is authentic and natural but is still a persona.

One teacher told me about how there is so much going on in the classroom.  There is the material, the lesson.  There is the relationship between students and teacher.  There are the relationships between students.  There is the individuality of each student.  And, there are a never ending series of external distractions.  It all calls for a kind of presence, focus, and attentiveness.  This teacher told a story about when he was a student teacher.  As part of the program, the teachers would videotape themselves in order to better evaluate their teaching skills.  One day, they taped two student teachers co-teaching a class of middle school students.  The two teachers were deeply engaged in the day’s lesson.  During the class, caught on video, a student managed to climb out the window of the classroom, walk around the building, and come back in through the door to the classroom, all without either teacher noticing that this had happened.
Most teachers wanted to make sure that I said something about some of the external factors that affect teaching.  One teacher commented that while teachers sometimes are credited with success when education succeeds, they are usually given an unfair and disproportionate amount of blame for the problems in the education system.  One teacher commented on working in a school district where the students she works with are extremely disadvantaged.  The school itself and the families she works with have less money and fewer resources.  The students come to elementary school with less preparation and usually without the benefit of pre-school.  Some have parents who are illiterate.  Many come to school hungry.  It is a model of education as triage that is too common in our metro area and in our country.

When asked about the spiritual significance of teaching, the first thing that many teachers I spoke with mentioned was their sense of connection with their students.  One teacher spoke of the privilege of getting to learn her students’ thoughts and dreams.  Others spoke of the fulfilling and meaningful nature of the teacher-student relationship, either in general or in regards to one particular student whose life was particularly inspiring.  Others found fulfillment in helping students develop a passion for a particular subject.  Several teachers spoke about the spiritual nature of the breakthrough moment, the aha! learning moment, whether that is understanding a difficult concept in physics or figuring out a challenging phrase in music.

One teacher in our congregation shared with me a piece he had written that explores one spiritual dimension of teaching.  We teach, he writes, through our deepest beliefs about other people and about what we value.

We teach what we believe. More than that, students learn what we believe.  Not so much that they learn that we believe certain things, but I think that students take away from our classes what we hold most deeply to be true about our subject matter and about our students. What we believe gets taught, whether we want it to or not.

If I believe that my students are capable learners, that they can get what I have to teach, and can run with it to do great things…; if I believe my students are capable of learning the…skills…; if I believe my students are capable of great things – then my students will learn they are capable of great things.

If I believe my students are not very bright, that they are not motivated to work hard enough to master the content or the skills I have to teach; if I believe my students are not capable of performing at my level of scholarship or expertise – then my students will learn they are not capable of great things.

I am convinced that when my beliefs are great, my teaching is great. And when my beliefs are timid, or fearful, or contemptuous, my teaching is discreditable.

At the same time that teachers spoke passionately about aspects of the vocation that they found spiritually sustaining and inspiring, there was also a dark cloud that hung over several of these conversations.  The 2012 Metlife Survey of the AmericanTeacher revealed that teacher satisfaction has declined 23 percentage points since 2008.  In 2008 62% of teachers reported being very satisfied and now only 39% of teachers say that they are very satisfied.  This was the lowest level of teacher satisfaction reported in twenty five years.  One in three teachers reported that they were likely to leave the profession within the next five years.  The Survey of the American Teacher further revealed that teachers felt most challenged by problems that originate beyond the doors of the school.  Teachers report a high level of satisfaction with their colleagues and their students, but find their passion diminished by budget cuts, decreased professional development opportunities, and from an increasing emphasis on standardized testing that saps teacher creativity.

In several of the conversations I had, there was at minimum an undertone, and often an overt expression, of anger and pessimism about the future of the profession of teaching.  This anger and frustration was directed at politicians at the state and local level who fail to value education, who resist adequately funding education, and who often treat educators with hostility and condescension.  One person I spoke with painted a horrifying, dystopian picture of what he saw as the likely future of higher education in Kansas:  the consolidation of all state schools into one massive university, a move away from classroom education and towards most classes being offered on-line, and a focus at the university level on career training rather than the development of critical thinking skills.  Our state, he intimated, is being increasingly run by anti-intellectuals who are suspicious of education and disdain intelligence and free thought.

And so I’m challenged in this moment, on one hand speaking to educators, many of whom chose this profession in order to make their lives of service, to inspire, to liberate lives through education, to make, in Taylor Mali’s words, a goddamn difference.  And, on the other hand, speaking to educators who too often find their calling disrespected, disinvested in, and scapegoated.

I think of Taylor Mali encountering boorish disrespect, “Is it true what they say about teachers, that those who can, do, and those who can’t teach?”  And I think of the boldness of his slam poetry, passionate and defiant.  I think of those many teachers who were truly great, who taught with their intellect and with their heart, who changed my life.  My American history teacher who taught us the American history curriculum but also assigned us Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and wasn’t afraid to point out where the textbook we used was biased or misleading.  The middle school social studies teacher who taught us government and also included a unit on student protest movements.  The French teacher who knew seven languages but impressed me even more by bringing his male partner with him to chaperone prom.  How every teacher in my high school declared their willingness to advise the Gay / Straight Alliance student club.  Or the professor of Biblical Theology at Harvard whose outspoken views on Middle East politics were costing the school millions in donations and who was called in to meet with the President of Harvard University and was told to tone it down.  He refused, explaining his refusal with reference to his theological understanding of the prophetic tradition in the Bible.

I think of the most moving classroom experience of my life.  It was junior year in high school, a spring afternoon, the Friday before the SATs.  Many of my classmates were stressing themselves out about the test; this after all, was a high school where an ulcer from academic stress was a badge of pride.  My English teacher that year was a brilliant man with a doctorate in English from Stanford.  He came in, saw the stress, and received a request to spend the period going over SAT test taking skills.  My memory of the what happened next was that he threw a blackboard eraser, shouted an expletive, and then sat down on his desk and told us his life story, especially how as a freshman in college he had made a series of bad choices and had almost not survived.  I don’t mean survived academically.  I mean survived survived.  My memory of the his story was that his college forced him to take an extended leave of absence as he recovered from the damage he had done to himself.  He came back and wound up going on to earn his Ph. D.  He told us that afternoon that our lives would not be determined by scores on a standardized test, grades on a transcript, or which college accepted or rejected us.  Our lives would be determined by our resilience, by how we handled the curveballs and the disasters; not by external circumstance but by inner strength.  As Taylor Mali puts it, “If you have [a brain] then you follow [your heart] and if someone tries to judge you, you give them [a vulgar gesture that communicates your intentions to be true to thine own self.]

I am grateful for these lessons from the professional teachers in my life.  And I’m reminded that if it is true what the member of our church wrote when he wrote, “We teach what we believe,” then in a way we are all teachers.  In our families.  In our communities.  In our church.  Amen.

Questions for Reflection:
1) Share a story about an inspiring teacher from your own life experience.

2) Consider the passage I quoted above from the "We Teach What We Believe" piece.  In what ways do you think you teach what you believe?

3) One teacher I spoke with was quick to say that while some people are trained, professional teachers, that all human beings function as teachers in one aspect of our lives or another.  When in your life are you a teacher?