My head is pounding. Probably because the emotional brick wall I keep encountering just won’t yield no matter how many times I hit it. Stop hitting it, you say? If it were that easy…
I’m inspired by a recent Facebook distraction where a friend of mine tossed a Batman quote in my direction, and it may have been slightly misconstrued by those reading who may not have had the requisite Christopher Nolan watch history to bring understanding. (So props to P, good quote. No worries, mate.) Applying the quote to teaching, he made a joke about me being the teacher my students need, but not the one they deserve. Ok, so maybe that sounds a little weird taken out of context, but I’ve been spending some time thinking about why I continue to be a teacher, especially when I encounter so many of these amazingly stupid, redundant, madness-inducing larger-than-life Joker-inspired walls.
I became a teacher by accident. I don’t know if that is a common story for teachers but that is what happened in my case. I spent all of my schooling never thinking I would become a person standing in front of a room while people wrote down what I said.
Here’s the thing: I’d been spending all my graduate work focused on becoming a better therapist. I left my master’s program thinking my egg hadn’t hatched yet, so I wanted to incubate a little longer. That was a good decision. A lot of important things came together for me and at the conclusion of my program, I was definitely a much more skilled and capable counselor. But being the philosopher I can’t avoid, I also noticed the irony of counseling work that I still haven’t escaped to this day.
If you ever apply to a counseling program, at some point you’ll be asked, “why do you want to do this.” And what admissions committees don’t tell anyone is that we are looking out for the “because I want to help people” answer. We look out for it because this is what most people will write; it is also nearly meaningless. What does it mean to “help” people? What is helping? Before any of us set foot in a classroom, we all held rather naive ideas about helping and our ability to do it. Most of our ideas are illusions, props we tell ourselves to believe we are more powerful, effective, and important than we really are. Somewhere in there exists altruism, but this is in reality a very small piece. We are usually interested in helping ourselves, and even there we don’t really know what that looks like either.
So after a few years of deconstructing all this, we find that we can’t really “help” anyone, and we adopt a new language of “facilitating change.” This is step one towards accepting we can’t actually make people do things, no matter how much we try. But counselors come to realize they don’t want to make people do things, because we appreciate and value this thing called agency – someone’s ability to be active in their own life and work from their own will. However, the flipside is we can make things happen, and often when we don’t intend to. Unfortunately our history is filled with such examples where our good-intentioned selves managed to hurt large groups of mostly disenfranchised people by subjecting them to lousy research or prejudiced, discriminatory practices. Thus we do know we can make a difference, but more often we see the results from when our differences create more harm than good.
I found myself caught in the sideliner’s observation that while I am witness to the experience of pain, I am rarely present to the experience of change. We have all kinds of phrases about “the process” and when it works, it means we are working ourselves out of a job. This means “change” doesn’t usually manifest in front of my eyes; rather it is inferred from the stories a client shares with me, and I usually fan the flames of hope that it moves in preferred directions. For a person to become responsible for all they have done, they aren’t changing because I’ve said a magic phrase, but because they have made change a part of their life. Thus when I do a “good job,” I’ve also erased myself from the picture. It means at any particular moment when I’m counseling, I am simultaneously influential and non-influential, powerful and impotent.
Damn you existentialists.
This is a frustrating state of being. But it is also core to how I work, because I am always balancing this dilemma, this ability to do and not do. You could say this is why we have to pay attention to ethics, because it becomes very easy to transform into the Purple Man.
All of this exists in the world of teaching, too. My role as a teacher isn’t to make people learn, but to create an environment where learning becomes possible. That is similar to how we talk about counseling, but in the classroom, my chances of being present to learning are much higher. Conversely, if learning isn’t occurring, I will see it immediately, and not just in test scores. Any teacher who has ever seen 30 faces check out all at once knows exactly what I’m saying.
For me to be a teacher, I’ve had to do a lot of work that includes regularly challenging myself and stepping well outside my comfort zone. I find myself influencing the potential for learning every time I’m in the room and I am always shifting between stepping into the mix and stepping out. Every group is different, every class forming its own personality and way of interacting. I never give the same lecture twice, and I never know where the class will end up. This doesn’t mean I take an “anything goes” attitude; rather learning morphs towards the path of the learner instead of forcing students into one identical mold.
That may sound a little weird since in recent times many think of school in a very business-oriented student-learning-outcome way and have reduced education to just memorizing times tables and spelling words. But education doesn’t end with basic skills, it starts there; ultimately education is about exercising and shaping a mind, a spirit, a being who is capable of interacting intentionally in the world. We’re not telling our students what to think, but how to think; the tools they must learn are the tools that empower them towards active freedom, not towards quiet subservience.
So when I say I get more chances to be present to learning, it means I get to see what I just described on a regular basis. Or at least, I am more likely to see it if I’m doing my job ethically, effectively, and earnestly. And I get to watch these students become counselors, people who are able to see the worth inside each person they work with. People who can sit in that existential dilemma so much more comfortably than I can because if learning took place, it taught them the most important lesson: they too are valuable because they exist, because they mean something and have a right to be here.
But this isn’t easy, and it is often thankless, and the obstacles to doing this work come from places you’d never imagine. That means I spend a lot of time banging my head against walls, and I’ll likely keep banging my head against walls. You’d think I’d have a thicker skull by now. But eventually there may be enough of us who’ve rediscovered our value as people to break through the wall, or maybe we’ll just walk off together and the wall will fall into obsolescence (Roger Waters was on to something, I think). I don’t know really; after all it’s just a metaphor. Enough speculation though, I have a lesson to prepare…