When the local theater scheduled a run of Taming of the Shrew during our study of Shakespeare, I was thrilled. It was perfect timing, especially when their top-notch actors agreed to do a few student matinees. I got the chaperones. I got the permission slips. I got the buses. Then, I got the phone call.
A nervous young lady left a broken message, “We are calling all the schools attending the play tomorrow…(sigh)…we wanted to let you know that…uh…there is a moment…where one of the actors…you see…it is very brief…well…he moons the audience.” My chest tightened – speeding my heartbeat and straining my breath. “Please sit strategically with the students so there is no disruption,” she advised. I was ready to cancel. I was ready to call in sick the next day. I was ready to swear off field trips forever. Then, I remembered – this was not the first time that an act of teaching or a lesson or a phone call had terrified me, and it wouldn’t be the last. The art of teaching involves an endless series of calculated risks. It is the bravest thing I do.
Extraordinary courage isn’t something I came to the profession with, but I saw it in my first teacher, Mrs. Plummer, who shared her lap and life with a gaggle of over energetic kindergarten students and had high expectations for us and our parents. I also saw it in Mrs. Marsh who demanded excellence from every one of her tenth-graders despite the enormous energy we spent pretending we didn’t care. She insisted that we write “Pursuing Excellence” at the top of every piece of paper, and then go about the business of pursuing. It was a contract with her students, and she expected us to honor it as she did. I see it daily in my fellow teachers who introduce their students to powerful works of art, meaningful literature, the mysteries of the universe, and windows into our humanity and inhumanity.
Because of them, I work every day to find courage inside myself – the courage to push for the tough questions, questions I don’t know the answers to, and to push harder for their answers.
I dare to say, “This is important, this is right” even though I know others are telling them the opposite.
I teach them to be better – more compassionate, more tolerant, more resilient. Even though I have failed and tried and failed again, I require more from them.
I dig for the courage to be wrong about what they know, what they don’t know, what they need, who they are. I struggle to uncover the prejudices, pull back the discouragement and despair, and discover some hope for all of us.
I summon the courage to offer them opportunities to excel beyond what people expect from them, just to see if they can. And they do. And sometimes, I find the courage to let them fall short, because failure is part of success.
Teaching demands that I listen more than I talk, question more than I answer, learn more than I know, and choose challenge over comfort. If I find the strength to honor that code, I can claim the title teacher and add my name alongside Socrates and Confucius, Newton and Einstein, Thoreau and Locke, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King. We call some philosophers or scientists, others preachers or prophets, but we call them all teachers. We give the title of teacher to people who inspire real change, who take the most extraordinary risks to make us see ourselves and the world differently.
I was wrong about the play. I did not have to sit strategically. I did not have to cancel. I did not have to hide in the bathroom. I had to talk to them. I had to let them know what behavior was appropriate. I had to admit that it was funny. It was shocking, even irreverent. And then I had to push them to see beyond that. They loved the play – its clever puns, rhythmic language, timeless story…and the mooning. As they were leaving the theater I heard one student say, “I had no idea how great Shakespeare was.” I heard another say, “I’m going to have to burn my eyeballs, now.” They are still eighth-graders, after all.