In Memory of Teaching, Part 2


Teaching is Over

Teaching is over, and I find that I am letting go of students I would have kept near me forever.  Students are gifts in a teaching life, but they are all destined to live fresh lives beyond our experiences together.  With them, I have gratefully experienced illumination and grace.  Now I will invent and practice the rest of my life without them, seeking whatever happens on my own.

My courses in the final term were especially satisfying; they helped me to find a sense of completion and continuity. By the time my teaching ended, I could begin to say what it meant.  That term was a valediction, but it also meant redemption and self-rescue, as all of my teaching has meant.  I rescued myself from a life without affect by teaching and by advocacy for learners.

There is evidence that I have a talent for giving students some hope, and for helping them to see and feel the possibilities of knowledge and practice. Teaching is much more than that (it is collaboration and acceptance); but I felt superb moments and moving ideas in classrooms.  Less than a teacher, I thought of myself as an advocate for learning, knowledge, and practice.

Early in my work I came to feel deeply for my students, and in these last years, have sought nothing more than to help clarify their own constructive awakenings as they happen.  This is a good way to think of what I did.

And yet I have three tentative and somewhat dark convictions about teaching.  They are personal and professional, and they vary in their authority, but I know them to be true. They seem to be about invisibility.

The first is a lifelong, irrefutable conviction of my failure as a person, one who has felt motivated to teach as a way toward self-rescue, and who has failed at that. No one expects to fail, but all of us do, often in great invisible ways. In universities driven by contradictory (and rarely heroic, or altruistic) values, I chose to be a teacher, and to care as a teacher. Now, I see that as I made that choice, I also chose to live invisibly, with little evidence of success.

Still, teaching rescued me from selfishness (a life without giving, and therefore without meaning) but it has caused the frequent emptiness of having given much of myself away.

My second dark conviction is that, just as I have failed, I have also succeeded, but in invisible ways. Teaching is an invisible action. I feel confidence in the invisible, and in its value among us; I would not change my aspirations or my work, or my invisibility. The darkness lies in the teacher’s submission to responsibility, and to the hard challenge of the class. Teaching is distant from a life of action and outer engagement; I felt its constant obligation to act for the learning of others, and not for myself.

Third, I know that teaching is not a selfless choice, but to choose it is to disappear, even as the teacher is present in the lives of his students.  To teach is to disappear into the lives of learners. The teacher disappears by design, a magician whose final magic is his own disappearance.  To teach is to make invisible changes in the world, and to make others successful and visible in their own practices, and yet to disappear oneself.

(Students also disappear from the teacher’s life.  I remember moments in the silent classroom immediately after students had left at the end of the term, an empty view, an empty world. The emptiness of their disappearance is breathtaking, and it seems that one has nothing left of what had happened among us.)

As I leave teaching behind, I take comfort in my dark convictions, knowing that each is a necessary theme. The completion of my work – if that is possible to anticipate — remains unclear and ambiguous to me.  Even this essay was first titled, “Against Teaching,” an expression of lifelong regret for the careers I have missed.

But I know that I am for teaching, for reading, for knowledge, and for transformation and renewal.  Because I am for teaching, I am also for breaking through the limits placed on all of us, including the teacher, by fear.

When I became a librarian I found solace in assisting people to solve problems and make progress in their lives.  I became an educator and slowly found a way of living my life in order to find this same kind of solace.  My students have been generous in their graceful ways of allowing me to offer brief experiences, to challenge them, to offer refuge for their thinking and advocacy for their own powers.

They listened.  I came to love their lives and learned to be grateful in the moments when each class began, as each office hour, or each conversation in the hall occurred. At times, to teach was to be parental, admiring, encouraging.  At times, to teach was to be direct and intentional. At times, it was to be confused by how much I admired my students, and how well I could see their futures and how little I could know of my own. At times to teach was to be bereft of words, wanting to say more than I could say.

Every class, every group of students, has been a mystery, at beginning and end. At the best times it was my finest challenge to explain the gift of useful work and trusted service, the satisfactions and effects of helping.  It was also to speak about the promise of the future, to tell them to anticipate an end to the tensions and fears of school:  an end to bleak and slow semesters, preparing in darkness and isolation for some distant goal, worrying about the future, hoping for the day when one might come to act thoughtfully and independently among others as a professional.

I end my work with one more conviction: teaching is difficult and divisive, an intellectual solo, stand-up performance controlled by others, part Carson, part Kafka. Teaching divides us between responsibility and passion; it divides us between giving and judging; it extracts our vitality and redistributes it to other people. It is about transfer, legacy, and disappearance. It is about the tensions of the irrecoverable:  the giving away of what we have discovered and may have loved best.

2 Responses to “In Memory of Teaching, Part 2”

  1. teresa Says:

    This is really a terrific article. I must add you to my Feed list.

  2. Donna Says:

    You said: To teach is to disappear into the lives of learners. The teacher disappears by design, a magician whose final magic is his own disappearance. To teach is to make invisible changes in the world, and to make others successful and visible in their own practices, and yet to disappear oneself.

    This is the exact thought I have had about parenting for these past 20 years.

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