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Reflections on the True Meaning of Teaching

May 4, 2017

            I was always a good student, so good in fact that I disastrously destroyed the curve which could have saved several of my classmates over time from being grounded at home.  I graduated valedictorian from my high school class.  I went on to get not one but a small handful of university degrees, becoming so educated that I have even had potential employers tell me that I was “over-qualified” for certain jobs (to which I replied of course, “Oh, so you are purposely looking for someone underqualified?” or “I should certainly hope that EVERYONE is over-qualified to stock your shelves and run your cash register!”)James 1st day teaching

I, like many other good students, went on to become an educator because of some notion I had gotten in my head that education is everything—that education is the pathway to a bright future and personal fulfillment, that education represents the only true way to achieve the American Dream, that education is liberation and freedom.  I have believed so strongly that language is the key to achieving power and that good communication is the route toward conflict resolution (this was even the subject of my Valedictory Address twenty-six years ago) that I have been teaching French, Spanish, and English as a Second Language to students at all levels for the past twenty-two years.

But what sends me to my keyboard this morning?  Change.  I am considering putting my years of experience in the classroom to a new purpose and mission.  I am contemplating shifting the focus of my career and leaving the lectern in the next semester or two, and am wrestling with the idea of not being in a classroom, either as a student or as a teacher, for the first time in almost forty years.  I am not worried.  I am not sad.  It is just change and I am sure that my efforts to be of service to others will be rewarded if I decide to move on to something new.  I am also wrought though with questions like, “Have I made any difference?” or “Have I wasted my time?”  Given what has been said about teachers, and the teaching profession over the last number of years, I am sure you understand from where my apprehension comes.

I spent my early career in a variety of private and public high schools in New Jersey, Maine and Virginia where I served alongside consummate educators full of patience and compassion.  I was ‘in the struggle’ with mental health professionals at a facility for deeply troubled youth where I listened to the stories of a child who had thrown himself off the top of a four-story barn, breaking nearly every bone in his body upon impact with the frozen ground below, because he was trying to escape a different kind of pain—abandonment by his parents.  I have willingly helped an adolescent man, deaf since birth, secure a box of condoms at the local pharmacy so that he could work the girls in his class to a hormonal frenzy with his charm and handsome physique. So confident was he that when I asked him why he needed my help in that small New England town full of judgmental Puritans, he replied, “I may be deaf, but I know those girls can ‘hear’ me!”

My later career has been spent teaching adults in night classes at a local technical college.  While I am certainly qualified to be giving classes at a larger university to better prepared students, I have long enjoyed working with adults seeking to retool their careers or younger less affluent adults who have seen that level of education as a way to save money, make progress towards a larger goal, and still be able to balance the stresses of raising children of their own with the expectations of employers and educators.  Some, like ‘Miss Pink Pants’ who ripped me to shreds in front of a colleague only to later request that I write her the same kind of glowing recommendation that I had for one of her classmates, have been pugnacious; I declined to write that letter.  Others have been apathetic, leaving so little impact on me that years later, I have struggled to recall more than the person’s face.  You know that student.  He is the one who approaches you at the mall and you have to resort to generic questions such as “What have you been doing since you finished your studies?” so as not to appear rude by not remembering.  Others have been highly motivated and gone on to accomplish great things—and I am grateful to facebook for helping me stay in touch with them.  I count a doula and midwife, a lawyer, a medical researcher, a social worker, a pharmacist-in-training, a teacher, and a housewife, among many, in my list of forever friends, once students.  Only a very small handful have actually gone on to study French or Spanish further, and they, like me, all felt that they were using language like a superpower.  My hope is, however, that all have left my classroom empowered to see their own future in a different light. My desire has always been that while they may no longer speak or use the language skills I was directly teaching, that my students have the skills to break down texts which are more complicated than they can readily understand at first glance and see that in the grammar lies understanding of the larger meaning; that my students learned to see the world differently, through the cultural lens of another; that they simply learned that no matter where someone comes from in the world that our problems are the same and that by working together we can resolve those issues and understand each other better.  My wish is, as a Togolese student recently told me, that I have been able to be compassionate with my students because I have taken the time to imagine my life were I to have been in their shoes; that, as a Somali student said, I have indeed been the best teacher I can be.

Change.  I am contemplating using my talents in other ways after realizing that the public discourse that has led people to decry teachers as ‘glorified babysitters’ has led public policy in a direction which has left me after twenty-two years with nary a few thousand dollars in my retirement; I am grateful that a friend who passed away a decade ago left me his home, which I consider my paid-up future.  The same people who have claimed that ‘teachers only work a few months of the year’ have created a system where someone with as much education as I have is monitored and supervised in ways no other profession would tolerate.  In short, teaching is one of those jobs at which everyone feels she could do better, just because she had previously been in a classroom as a student herself.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It takes years to learn to be a great teacher.  And, as I ponder leaving the profession, I think to myself, “But you are just getting good at this!”  I also then recollect that, at times, the only thing left challenged in that work is my patience.  I wonder too that if I leave now, when I am at what feels like the top of my game, will I be depriving others in some way?  I hope the future students who I won’t work with will understand.

But there is so much more to teaching than preparing a perfectly chronometered lesson plan, than the ability to elegantly decorate a learning environment (from one’s personal treasure since we as a society have not yet placed value on these things through an honest budget process), than just showing up to work.  While I have perfected how to present the intricacies of the temporal forms of the indicative past in three languages, the parts of my score of years in a school room which I cherish the most have nothing at all to do with the actual act of teaching a foreign language, but rather the personal connections I have made with students over the years.  The parts of my job which have affected me the most profoundly have been those moments when I have touched upon the uniquely universal and singularly human aspects of people’s lives.


–I’ve shouted, “Stop.  Just Stop!” at the mother of a severely anorexic child.  I felt compelled to get this woman to think for a moment that her unrealistic desire for her daughter to go to Harvard, when the child wanted to go to the local university to study to become a kindergarten teacher, may in fact be the cause of her daughter’s severe illness.  I shook that mother by the shoulders and beseeched her to allow her daughter to not only get treatment for her illness but to also chart her own path for the future.  I warmly took that same mother’s hand and let her know that she was understood.  (After, almost two years of family counseling and a lengthy in-patient stay for the daughter. the Mother tracked me down to mail me a thank you note.  I may, as she stated in her punctilious script, have saved all of their lives in one way or another.)

–I’ve volunteered time to teach students how to be culturally aware so that they would, in turn, be able to help small communities in Latin America change lives through dental hygiene lessons, building losa stoves to dramatically change the sorts of women in remote villages who one had to stoop long hours over a pit fire to cook for their families.

–I’ve risked my job through what may have been perceived as “inappropriate contact” (offering a good and solid hug, the kind you don’t let go from) in order to keep a student’s world from spinning off its axis and falling in to the deep darkness of outer space.  The girl’s mother and brother were murdered in a carjacking that day and she was suddenly an orphan and alone.

–I’ve sat Shiva with the family of a young man who perished as a result of severe hypothermia when his bipolar disorder told him he should walk the rails from Central Maine to Canada in subzero weather.  He had been a gifted math student with visions of changing the world one day for all of us.  Seven days with his disbelieving father by my side changed me.

–I bullied two young men in to behaving more responsibly by relying on some of my brother’s former (reprobate) friends to give me information about the students’ drug use.  By accessing information about who their dealer was, how much he was charging, and threatening to share that information with those in power to make their lives far worse, I was able to get their attention and keep it. What they really wanted was for someone to give a hoot about them, and to hear their story.  Much to the administrator’s surprise, they were fine students of French, when I was done with them.

–I’ve listened to the pleas of a distraught mother, unable to bring stability to her daughter’s existence, as she asked me to give up my Saturdays to take Swing Dance lessons with that daughter so that her child could be assuredly safe and unable to do harm to herself.  By the end of our lessons, we were pretty slick dancers, if I say so myself.

–I’ve pulled a free-lunch fourth-grader on to my lap to ask him why he did not always come to school.  He had at eleven in the morning sped up the school’s driveway on his flashy red bicycle, and entered my classroom with a certain level of fanfare.  “Don’t hassle me, Teach!” he declared over his shoulder as he took off his knapsack, “I am only here for lunch.”  While he had no one to make sure he got to school every day to learn, he did know where a good hot meal, the only one he would get that day, could be found.  The truancy officer I made contact with during my planning period helped the family view the little guy’s education a bit more amply.

–I’ve tried everything to calm a distressed nine year old, up to and including calling his mother to come fetch him from school.  The next morning, when I inquired as to how he was doing, was met with the utmost of serious tones:  “I don’t know how you do it!  Every day.  Every day there is something new to learn!” he uttered.  It is good to recognize one’s own limits.

–I’ve endured the plaintiff sobs and crocodile tears of students wishing to manipulate their way to a good grade rather than do the hard work required to be successful.  “When you are all done being a martyr,” I have said, “come back and join us.”  A martyr indeed, said one a few years later after she had completed her degree, “I thought you were such a bastard that night, but I have come to realize that you were right.  The only one suffering was me, and it was my own fault.”

–I’ve read a personal essay, written as a classroom exercise, so disturbingly dark that I invited the student to join me on a walk to meet a friend of mine in the counseling office of the school.  It was the end of the summer session, and I never saw that student again, though she did later pen me a letter to tell me that she had been contemplating ending her life that day and that she was grateful that I saw in her pain someone worth saving.  She had been admitted to the hospital that afternoon where she remained until her world seemed less bleak.

–I’ve taken that midnight phone call from a student who just lost his father to suicide and who felt he had no other place to turn to make sense of it all.  I would later make lunch for the fellow, listen to his story and learn of his special relationship with his dad so that I could, as he wept, compose the eulogy which he would deliver to a crowd of several hundred of his father’s family and friends.


But above all of this, I, like all of the best teachers I have had in my lifetime, offered friendship and caring and in the process learned something about the true meaning of love and family.  Fourteen years ago, an elderly gentleman, began my courses hoping to be able to speak to his late Cuban mother in her own language “when he got to the other side”.  We remained friends upon his completion of his course of study.  Shortly after, when it became apparent that my elderly friend needed extra help with his daily living tasks, he asked if I would serve as his P.O.A.  As his level of needs increased, and the authority granted me under the POA was exceeded, I petitioned the Court to become his legal guardian.  I saw my friend and student through his dementia to the end of his days.  He is now interred in a Florida cemetery next to his beloved Mother.  I hope they are chatting it up but good, in her native Spanish, his native English, or just through the kind of love that would push a 78 year-old to study a foreign language in the first place.

            It is thanks to this man, at the time some thirty years my senior, that I have a new career path to contemplate following. A few years ago, I decided that it was time to formalize my work as a legal guardian.  I began the process that summer to found Wilson Advocacy and Guardianship to provide myself in my work as power-of-attorney and legal guardian with the legal protections afforded like corporations, as well as to formalize many of the processes by which I conduct my business, becoming more professional.  As Wilson Advocacy and Guardianship I have undertaken the work of codifying many of my processes.  I have sought training with the National Guardianship Association, the Alzheimer’s and Dementia Alliance of Wisconsin, and others to improve the craft of serving as a guardian.  And because I can’t seem to get away from teaching entirely, I have offered professional development opportunities to my employees who provide companionship and other services to my clientele.

In my advocacy work, I seek above all to focus on quality of life for my clients.  From hiring a Santa Claus to visit the assisted living, to organizing a SuperBowl tailgating party for fifteen older sports fanatics, to arranging for a weekly visit from the library book mobile for an avid reader, I have tried to make the little things in life count for something too.  Through person-centered surrogate decision-making in the areas of personal, financial and medical management, I have sought to honor the spirit of what my client would want for him/herself so as to insure that with the right combination of support and opportunity that my client can experience his/her own individual potential, however limited that may be.  I strongly desire that my clients actively participate with family, friends and other valued relationships to create a life that is joyful and fulfilled.  And most importantly, I still believe that educations empowers, that we can learn new things at any age, and that communication is at the heart of happiness.  While a person suffering dementia may not be the one initiating conversation any longer, our job as the people who love and care for that soul is to relearn how we communicate with him.  Do we help that person out by holding both sides of the conversation?  Do we need to perhaps fill in those words she can’t find?  Or perhaps, we need only to sit and be together, smile together, and enjoy the simple pleasure of being with one another.  There is a grammar to kindness, and it is far less complicated than the use of fourteen verbal tenses I have been teaching for so long.  It takes a subject, a friend; a verb, an act of generosity; and an object, empathy, to make a complete sentence.  Abandon your desire to send just a ‘text message’; listen, really listen to each other.  Live.  Learn. Teach.  Words to live by.

            As I decide when and how I might exit the stage from classroom teaching, I ask you too to think about those people who have influenced you over time.  I have had trained professionals who guided me along the way, and many students from whom I learned a great deal.  But how does one say thank you for something like that?  I am also wrought with questions like, “Have I made any difference?” or “Have I wasted my time?”  If you’ve had someone in your life who has impacted you, send that person a note and let them know it.  Hearing that you have helped someone along the way is a surefire way to encourage someone to be helpful to another in the future as well.  If I have somehow been that person for you, drop me a line.  Assure me that I have fought the good fight and can move on to help others in a different way.  I’d love to hear from you if you felt I made a difference.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karen Girvan permalink
    May 4, 2017 2:18 pm

    James, what joy I had reading your essay! All of us have had “that” teacher, and you have clearly influenced so many. I’m happy for you that you can contemplate an existence beyond your teaching career, and I understand well the questioning that we teachers do about our impact. Thank you so much for your thoughtfulness about this profession.

  2. Bonnie Waters permalink
    May 4, 2017 3:27 pm

    Very well put. As educated as you are, you have never come across as to good to befriend less educated people. You are very down to earth and still make time in your schedule to comment on the going on of parents of your old classmates.☺
    I dealt with my Dads dementia, if that’s what your going to do is help dementia patients, that is so awesome. You are spot on about dealing with dementia, what do you say or do….do you finish the sentence for them, do you just sit and enjoy the company. There is no right answer as you know. I am sure you will make a good difference in many lives yet to come. I know you have made a big difference in many lives already. Continue to do what feels right for you.

  3. Crystal Jackins permalink
    May 4, 2017 11:10 pm

    Enjoyed having you as a super French student many years ago. Not many students take two languages but you took the challenge. Enjoyed reading your post. I wish you the best in all you do. Teaching certainly is more than just standing in front of a class…. so much more.

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