What counts in teaching? What really counts?

When I began teaching, I immersed myself in the myriad, overwhelming tasks of keeping up with the expected and unexpected. I applied my own sense of teaching and experimented with new ideas, particularly from co-teaching with my department head. But, it was not until years later that I allowed larger perspectives into my life and teaching. I discovered not only the joy of learning the wisdom of the “greats” but also the gifts they brought. I explored texts from the Tao Te Ching, Confucius, the Buddha, Jesus and writings by Thich Nhat Hanh, Dalai Lama, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wendell Berry, Rumi, and Hafiz, among many others. Some have become seminal influences and forever changed my practice.

I cannot count the times these teachings energized my classroom and enriched my teaching. Despite pressures from an expanding media-centered culture, encroaching state and school authorities, and unrealistic expectations of parents, I came to understand (before I think I recognized it) that my primary responsibility was to teach to the interior landscape of each and every child, to meet their human longing to understand themselves and their place in the universe—the place where the ancient sages dwelled.

I discovered the depth of this truth when teaching Ancient History later in my career. The school required that I use a textbook to provide the basics to prepare daily lessons, give quizzes and tests, assign papers and homework, and determine grades. The students, then, would have “covered” Ancient History and been “prepared” for the next year. No one would have argued had I done just that. Students would not have complained either, other than the usual gripes of eighth-graders. After all, they were used to the culture of the textbook, since this was how they had been trained. This is a pattern teachers know and use well—or not, depending upon one’s point of view.

Such limited teaching, however, does not satisfy. We yearn for meaningful classrooms in which learning happens by invitation within the context of rich and worthwhile material. Sometimes we succeed, other times we come up short. Often, we hesitate because we fear we’ll fall behind in what we think we need to cover. But, when we are willing to take the risk, we can achieve the unexpected.

There’s a fascinating account of an assignment that Frank did on the Ancients. Well worth it! Read it in Teaching from the Middle of the Room: Inviting students to Learn from Amazon: