An article by Sean Donaghey with the headline “I work: Therefore I am” appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper a short while ago. It started this way: “Self-discovery is hard work. To pull it off, you usually drop out of society and rough it in the wilderness.” My version of that might be spending far too much time in my kayak paddling along the Humber River just 20 minutes from home right in the heart of Toronto. “No chatting with friends at Starbucks. No retail therapy at the nearest mall. ” The article goes on to explain how Sean went through life from one job to another until he finally found the job that defined him; as he puts it: “now I truly know who I am and what I was meant to do.” It’s a lovely tale, and it nearly made me tear my hair out.
For many years I have known who I am and pretty much what I was meant to do. I’ve always tried to be my authentic self and do what I thought I was supposed to do. That hasn’t always meant what is does for lots of people though. I’ve never been very caught up in doing what others have thought I should do. Being authentic, making sure that I always speak up – and act – when I experience a social injustice, trying my best to show respect and build dignity for everyone I meet on any given day; this is who I am. Who I am, however, is the reason that I chose to do what I’ve done for work these many many years. I am … therefore I teach.
I didn’t plan on being a teacher. Many visions of what to do “when I grow up” scuttled around in my mind when I was young. Choosing to become a teacher was such a lucky choice for me because it’s been a place where I’ve truly been able to find my own voice. The admiration that I have for teachers all over the world was expressed in an article that I wrote after working in Prishtina, Kosovo on three occasions between October 1999 and March 2000; an article that drew on the journal that I’d kept while working there.
But this evening, in this principal’s office, I am almost overwhelmed by the courage and dedication of teachers. Take away their building, and they find new places to teach. Take away their supplies, and they develop strategies that don’t rely on paper or pencils. Take away their resources, and they become storytellers. Take away their salaries, and they find ways to survive without money and still provide a cake to celebrate a child’s birthday. Take away their freedom, and they wash the only shirt they have left and stand proudly in front of their students as they teach about peace and democracy. (Click here for full article.)
Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote that “Between a text and its meaning lies the act of interpretation – and this depends on who is interpreting, in what context, and with what beliefs.” That interpreting – bringing ideas to life – that, to me, is the domain of teaching. Who we are as human beings, the context and manner in which we pursue learning with our students (and I think that we’re all sometimes students to each other) and the underlying deep beliefs that we bring to each encounter each day … well, that’s what makes for teachers (and people) who make a difference and are remembered for many, many years.
I hope that’s what I’ve been – at least some of the time – in my years as a teacher. I hope that’s what I’ve also been – at least some of the time – in my life as a whole. At the same time, it’s what I’m still hoping to achieve as I redefine myself in retirement and explore new worlds of being.