Sunday, October 4, 2015


The Real Teachers of..... Insert a City.
The music begins. Seven teachers-- five women and two men-- theatrically pose holding stereotypic teacher items-- an apple, a ruler, a plan book, a red pen. They boldly state their taglines.

I don't just teach... I reach.

I can grade with the best of them.

I am more than a textbook.

I am not your grandfather's schoolmaster.

And so on ...

More music...transition to commercial.

It hasn't happened yet, but we can all imagine the opening of the first reality show about teachers.

Reality shows thrive because we are nosy-- interested in prying into the private lives of people we haven't met, or those we have seen in the news or on our favorite program.  We feast on vicariously experiencing new lives, and seeing what other people say and do when out of the spotlight or precisely because they are in the spotlight. Teachers are not exempt from this curiosity.

I can imagine the above opening scenario becoming a reality soon.


When you think of  teacher, what images do you conjure?

Perhaps the older woman with glasses on her nose and hair in a bun, a pencil sitting behind her ear and a sweater buttoned at her throat over pearls,  in front of rows of desks explaining the rules of grammar.

Or maybe a young woman with her back to you, writing on the blackboard ( when educational note boards were not yet green, and definitely not white) demonstrating how to solve an equation.

Do you imagine an older man in a tweed jacket and mustache slowly reading poetry that you don't understand, but something about the way he reads makes you desperately want to understand?


Whoever your real teacher is, you probably imagined her or him in the classroom, actively teaching.

And if you are not a teacher, I bet you have said or heard someone say that  they could be a teacher... do what a teacher does... 

Of course, they could not do what a teacher does any more than they could do what a doctor does.

If we are truly  honest with ourselves and each other, we would recognize the complex space that is the classroom-- the layers of interactions, the cultures colliding, the multifaceted decisions made instantaneously, the wealth of knowledge and information held collectively in that space and all the learning facilitated by the real teacher.

If we look carefully we would acknowledge and honor  the complicated, messy world that is the reality of every real teacher.

And rightfully so.

But rarely do we picture real teachers outside their place of work, that space where they work their magic (and intelligence and craft and science and art and skill.)

Shelves of books document what teachers do in classrooms.   Short snippets of classroom life are routinely offered, along with lessons learned and more lessons to be taught. Longer portraits are collected of that life over time, some captured by observers, researchers,  journalists,  or by the teacher herself.

My own shelves are stacked with these books.

But who is the real teacher that we think we know so well?
Who is she before she gets up in the morning, eats breakfast, drinks coffee, kisses her husband, pats her dog, and drives to work?  Who is he before he went to bed last night, before he helped his special-needs son with homework, before he washed dishes or prepared the evening meal?

What was her childhood like? How did he grow up?

What do you really know about your teacher-- the one you conjure at the mention of the word teacher, the one who lives next door to you,  the one on the news last night?

How did your real teacher become a teacher and why?  What path led them to enter that amply documented classroom space?

Who served as examples, inspirations, and mentors?
Who were detractors? What hindrances were encountered?
What places offered reflective retreat?

Which recurring themes wove through their lives before arriving at the classroom door?
What patterns emerged that converged in that place?

Those are the stories in which I am interested.
Those are the realities that I want to know about.
I am fascinated with the becoming and the being that happened before the doing, that still ever undergird and surround the doing in that classroom,  See related blog post: Teaching, Learning, Knowing: Always Becoming a Teacher.

 In Teacher Man: A Memoir, Frank McCourt brings his classic dark humor to the difficulties, discoveries, and dignity of his high school classroom as he reflects on the mismatch between expectations and what we actually find on that anticipated first day:

You think you'll walk into the classroom, stand a moment, wait for silence, watch while they open notebooks and click pens, tell them your name,  write it on the board, proceed to teach... Principals and other figures of authority passing in the hallway will hear sounds of excitement from your room.   They'll peer through the door window in wonder at all the raised hands, the eagerness and excitement on the faces of these boys and girls...You'll be nominated for awards: Teacher of the Year, Teacher of the Century. You'll be invited to Washington. Eisenhower will shake your hand. Newspapers will ask you,  a mere teacher for you opinion on education.  This will be big news:  A teacher asked for his opinion on education.  Wow. You'll be on television.

 And fortunately for us, if we want to know this real teacher outside of his classroom, as well as how he became the teacher who entered that classroom,  we can read the first two books in this memoir trilogy.


For shorter excerpts of teachers' lives, how they became and why they remain teachers, I offer Sonia Nieto's Why We Teach.

In one of the essays, Teaching Outside the Lines, Elaine Stinson reflects on her early years  in school

"I hate school!"  I often would lamented as a student....  The divide between my home life and my experiences at school was made wider becasue I was too shy to initiate friendships.  My teachers did not come to my aid and I can only conclude that they were uanware of the social challenges I encountered as a 6-year-old.  They lacked knowledge about my home life and how it contributed to my experience  as a learner.  ....

She goes on to describe the reading groups (with obvious levels like bluebirds and robins where everyone knew who was the smartest) and history lessons endured  in which all the answers were given and no questions invited.

Her early experiences shaped the teacher she became and determined the practice in which she later engaged.

Perhaps teaching is my way of providing something that was missing in my own experience as a student. I've found that meaningful learning happens through meaningful interactions whether it's with peers, teachers, music, authors, or poets, or through nature. When children feel liked and accepted for who they are, they are more willing to open up and share their ideas, ... As a teacher I have learned that unpacking the "facts with a community of unique and critical eyes is essential to engaging learners and allowing learning to unfold.

And fortunately, as with  Frank McCourt, we are able to read how this important conversation about teachers' lives began and continues in other collections edited  by Nieto,


While McCourt offers us a narrated life and Nieto offers many essayed lives, William Ayers offer his life in comics.

In To Teach: The Journey, in Comics, he challenges us to think about how we define teacher:

To name oneself as a teacher is to live with one foot in the muck of the world as we find it-- with its conventional patterns and received wisdom-- and the other foot striding toward a world  that could be but isn't yet.
Even the most commiteed caring teachers will make mistakes along the way but they won't be disastrous. Teaching at is best is not a matter of technique-- its primarily an act of love... Welcome to the classroom  where instruction jumps off the page and overflows with love.... Welcome to learning as an act of construction and reconstruction.  

  If comics are not your thing, Ayers narrates  his story, the same story in To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher.

Who is the person who names herself a teacher?

As we ponder that question, as we search for the real teacher, the whole teacher, the one who enters the classroom, Parker Palmer, in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life,  continues to  help us seek not answers, but better questions and understanding.

I was exploring the inner landscape of this teacher’s life, hoping to clarify the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dynamics that form or deform our work from the inside out.  I wanted to find ways to deepen the self-understanding and thus the practice of anyone who cares about teaching as much as I do. 
In the midst of a culture that devalues the inner life, I hoped to do more than make the case that good teachers must live examined lives and try to understand what animates their actions for better and for worse

Who is she who enters the classroom?
Who is the one who names himself teacher?
Who is the real teacher?

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

If you  are a teacher, consider your story or select  portions of your story to examine.
How did you enter the profession? Did you always feel called or come to it later in life?
Who were your mentors and supporters, your detractors and stumbling blocks?

What patterns and themes emerge as you reflect on your journey?

Write your story. Include memories, journal entries, poems, letters, as well as quotes that have informed and transformed your life and ultimately led you to the classroom door.

If you are not a teacher, find a teacher to interview, asking some of the above questions.

Write a letter to that teacher about what you have learned and discovered.

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