Ah, summer vacation… For those of us connected to the school system, whether we are students, parents or teachers, we know how precious this time is. It is a time to relax, to read, to see family and friends, to have no schedule, to not have to worry about what to make for lunches for the next day, and to do all those things that are put on hold for the other ten months of the year.
I am a physics teacher, presently teaching grade 11 and 12 physics at a large public high school in New Brunswick, Canada. Although it is summer vacation now, teaching and my students are never far from my mind even during the summer months.
I have been teaching for 20 years and have loved every minute of it. I know how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to get to share in the lives of so many young people. There is something very hopeful and sacred tied into journeying with these young people, whom I often refer to as “my kids”, as they learn and grow, and as they work on discovering who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Part of my job, in these final years of high school is to help them find their potential and discover what they are capable of achieving. The other part of my job is to help them discover that they are intrinsically good, gifted people who have the ability to change our world into a better place. I remember reading an E.E. Cummings quote a number of years ago where he said “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that there is, deep inside us, something that is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch.” This really sums up my job with these young people. Many of my students need someone to believe in them so they can begin to believe in themselves. They long to know they are worth something, that there is something of value inside. Although they may have 500+ friends on Facebook, many of their relationships are electronic and in the end they feel alone, isolated and uncertain of themselves.
For me, physics is simply the point of connection with these young people. It is true that I challenge them academically. I teach them how to work and how to learn so that when they leave me they are ready for University. I know that academically I set the bar just a little bit beyond their reach, beyond where they think they can go, and then I spend many, many hours helping them reach it. The joke in my classes is that there are two things that they know they can always count on in this world. (1) Gravity will always pull objects downwards towards Earth and (2) my students will always have homework in physics. My students quickly discover that working on something every day makes them stronger in that field. I often tell them that physics is not a spectator’s sport. They cannot just sit there and watch me solve problems and think that they will get better at physics as a result any more that I can sit on the sidelines and watch one of them shoot foul shots in basketball and think then that I could hit a basket myself as a result of my watching. The only way any one of us gets better in any area of our lives is by practicing. On any given day at noon time, one will find between 20 and 40 students in my room at lunch, eating, chatting and working together on physics or another subject, happy to know that I or a classmate are there if they run into difficulty. These same students continue to hang out in my room even after they have completed my course(s) as they have discovered that it is a safe place to be, one where any question or problem is able to be addressed. Many of my students come back after their first semester of University to tell me that they were more than ready for the next step because of my courses and that makes me smile because that is how it should be. But that is only part of my job. As I said earlier, physics is only the point of connection with these young people, the way I get to know them and they get to know me so we can work together on whatever comes along in life.
When I encounter a student who is not doing what they are supposed to be doing in the school in general or what I have asked them to do in my class specifically (like the questions I assign for homework) or who is doing or saying something that they should not be doing or saying, I know something is wrong. These are red flags for me. These things tell me that there is something going on in this student’s life. When a student is disrespectful or rude, I know it is not about me but rather 99.99% of the time it is a signal that something else is happening. At these moments I know that the most important thing to do is to take a deep breath, swallow the automatic human reaction to disrespect, and remember that the key question that I need to ask, no matter what they might be saying to me, is “Okay, what is really going on?” And then I wait. Depending on the student, depending on the situation, it might be an instantaneous flood of words and tears or it may be a few hours or a day later before they come back to talk to me about what is happening in their personal lives that is making it impossible for them to function in their academic lives. Many people in our society might think that rudeness and disrespectfulness go with being a teenager in this day and age but this is not what I experience. Teenagers are good, kind, caring people who want to achieve and do well but many of them carry burdens that are too heavy for them to bear. The stories of the trauma, the heartache and the feelings of helplessness that I have heard over the last twenty years as these vulnerable, beautiful young people struggle to find their ways have broken my heart many times over. So often I find myself wishing that I could just reach in and fix it all for them. But that is not my role. My role is to stand by them and believe in them, to encourage them, to listen to them, to mentor them, to just be there to help them find the ways to “fix it” for themselves. What a sacred, incredible job I have…!
I think teenage years have always been challenging but perhaps at this moment in time, in a world of almost instant everything; our young people face even more challenges than in the past. Although they can have access to any fact or any other person in fractions of a second thanks to the world of internet and text messages, they often feel totally alone and cut off from the rest of the world. We are seeing more anxiety, depression and other forms of mental illness among our young people in high school today than ever before. They often find themselves alone with all they face, feeling that no one understands them and unable to really talk to anyone about what is going on inside. They struggle with where and how they fit into society and what gives meaning to their lives. Really we all carry these questions with us all our lives but they can seem daunting when we are just beginning to face them and with technology that is able to connect us to everyone instantly and simultaneously leave us feeling totally isolated, these questions can seem overwhelming. Perhaps more than ever before they need those of us who are their teachers to stand by them, to believe in them, to be there for them and to connect them to outside support when they require it, as they try to navigate the darkness they face.
I read a line once that said “We teach who we are.” Teaching and all other human activity comes from inside of us, for better or worse. Teaching holds a mirror to my soul and if I am willing to look in the mirror and not run from what I see, I have a chance to gain self-knowledge which is crucial to good teaching. In every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students and to connect them with the subject depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my true self and the degree to which I am willing to make it available and vulnerable to my students. So many of our young people do not have hope; they come from broken homes, broken lives, and broken dreams. They look to us to be signs of that hope so they can believe that despite the pain and challenges they are presently facing, life is still beautiful and worth the struggle that they are facing. They long to see in us love and evidence of hope for the future.
I have learned over the years that good teaching comes from my identity and integrity, how well I know and am at peace with myself. And I do not mean only my noble features, or the good deeds I do, or the brave face I wear to conceal my confusion and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with my shadows and limits, my wounds and my fears, as with my strengths and potentials. It is amazing how often I find myself called to use/share the piece of myself that I would rather hide and pretend is not there. But a good teacher must stand where the personal and public meet and make ourselves vulnerable – to indifference, to judgment, to ridicule, as well as to growth and transformation as we allow others to see our humanness. How can I help my students get to know and understand their own depth, who they are and what is going on inside of them, the good and the not-so-good, if I safely stay on the surface with them? If I truly want to help them to grow, mentor them into self-discovery, then I must show them who I really am. I must be willing to show them where I have struggled or am struggling too. I must admit and own where and when I have messed up or failed them. As a result, my students change me, they teach me. From them I learn what I am capable of achieving, what my potential is, how God wants to act in my life, and the areas of my life where I still need conversion, transformation, growth, and the grace of God.
As these wonderful days of summer move towards September once again, I cannot help but smile because I know, without a doubt, I have the best job in the world…!
Sister Karen Kelly, CND