The Courage to Teach: Part I – A Love Letter

This is an unabashed love letter to those who teach – particularly those who teach in E-12 settings. It is a job filled with joy and heartbreak, and the space between those two can turn on a dime. Teaching is glorious when it is clicking and painful and frustrating when it is not. And so to those who venture into this endeavor I want to share my appreciation for your skill, my admiration for your commitment, and my deep gratitude for all that you do for your students, their families and this society.


Teachers like Rachel and her colleagues in the west metro whom I have had the privilege of working closely with for a couple of years. Rachel has an amazing presence in the room, not by her stringency but by the obvious care she shows her students. They trust her, they know she wants the best for them, and they respect her. On top of this she has a clear and beautiful mastery in her content area, which makes her a nimble educator capable of skillfully responding to students’ needs and questions as they arise. All of this makes for excellent teaching, but what sets Rachel and her colleagues apart is her profound commitment to social justice issues and her desire to help each and every student learn what they need to learn not to just be successful in school, but to be able to enter this complicated and multidimensional world with confidence and an ability to understand it. She loves her job. She loves her students. She can laugh at it all and herself. She has shed many tears about it as well. She is a master teacher in the truest sense and I feel honored to have had the chance to know her and work with her.


Teachers like Lisa and the folks at a north metro high school. They are teachers in the truest sense because they are constantly seeking to learn and grow themselves. They have sat through trainings with me time and again (all by their own choice) and have taken it so deeply to heart that it blows me away. From one session to the next they would share with me examples of conversations with their partners, their family, their friends and how they are beginning to see equity issues everywhere and in turn act on them. They shared how they have gracefully and openheartedly (my words, not theirs…they’re too humble to say it like that) responded to students’ questions, fears, and concerns about some of the most difficult and painful issues in our society; and they do it day after day, with an unfaltering commitment to teaching the whole student and caring for the whole classroom. The work they do also embodies teaching at its best because they are exceptional stewards of education and will fight to the end for what they know to be right as educators and what they are sure is “best practice” for their students.


Educators like Eric and Jenny, two former classroom teachers and now administrators I have worked with in various ways. They put in enormous hours to make sure that each and every student gets their needs met. And then, after all of that, they put in even more hours to push themselves to learn more about equity issues and continue to improve their practice. They have done this so thoroughly that they can see and feel how it has shaped their lives outside of the district and how it has helped them engage more effectively and authentically with the world around them. You cannot ask for a better role model and leader in a school than someone who begins with themselves and shares that process openly and honestly with those around them.


All of these and the roughly 5,000 teachers I have worked with over the last 13 years here in the Upper Midwest deserve our thanks and admiration. Teaching is such an intimate and vulnerable venture. Bell hooks, in her book Teaching to Transgress, identifies so clearly how, at its best, teaching is a deeply personal act, a place where minds and hearts converge thus transforming education into an act of liberation, a testament to freedom, and a profound expression of love for humanity. Our society, with its “instant” everything and its overreliance on technology, inaccurately assumes (definitely to our detriment) that teaching can be improved with better technology, more focus on testing, and tougher performance standards. This is true if teaching is reduced to a mechanistic process whereby content is simply delivered, assessed, and built upon. But, when I ask teacher after teacher and student after student, “how many of you have had even one truly great teacher in your life?” almost everyone raises their hand. And then when I ask them to take 5 minutes to write down what made that person(s) a great teacher, it invariably is about how that teacher related to them, how they showed they cared for the students, how the teacher knew their name, how the teacher took extra time to explain some content to them, and so on. It is NEVER that the teacher had the latest technology, that the class’s test scores were high, or that the teacher was or was not tenured.


Teaching is an art form. It is an incredible dance between people. It is the process by which society is built and maintained. It is a sacred charge and should be treated as such. Teachers should be honored, revered, cared for (and paid better) in this society. And for anyone who thinks teachers are to blame for our society’s problems, step into a classroom for one day. Without being a true artist and having the mastery of the folks I mentioned above, you will be eaten alive…not by the students (although that can happen), but by the sheer intensity and gravity of the work you have stepped into without any preparation or skill to respond to it. I used to share with the pre-service and in-service students in my classes that a trained monkey can be an instructor, but only an artist can be a teacher. Every student is different and therefore the teacher must know how and when to use various brushes and tools, how to mix colors just so, and how to use just the right brush strokes for each and every person in that room. In more conventional terms, good teachers know how to attend to the intellectual, emotional, and psycho-social needs of students while they are teaching math. You see, it truly is an art form.


To be honest, however, this is not a blanket defense of all teachers. I have encountered many teachers who should not be in the classroom for various reasons. I have counseled pre-service folks out of the profession whom I could see had no passion or interest in the field and who by their own admission simply wanted a job with summers off. And, I have encountered teachers who used to love what they did and were passionate about it, but because of a lack of support their fire burned out (or, was allowed to burn out). And so this is not a romanticized soliloquy about how all teachers are perfect. Instead this is a clear and heartfelt love letter to those who are themselves in love with teaching and express that love so masterfully. We need you. We will not be able to navigate the future challenges without the foundations you are laying in the hearts and minds of the young people who pass through your doors. So, thank you for your commitment and passion. Thank you for your kindness and care for our children. Thank you for consistently going well beyond your job description and the hours you get paid for. Thank you for taking the charge of educating generation after generation of young people so seriously and so to heart. Thank you for your skill and brilliance in the classroom. Each and every day you help our society dwell in the hope and possibility of a better tomorrow through your teaching of our children. We owe you more than we can ever possibly give.