Making the Case for Teaching as a Spiritual Journey

Danielle is a girl in my daughter’s class. Tiny, strawberry-blond-haired beauty with a story to text. Yesterday was her birthday, and Danielle’s grandmother brought in cupcakes to celebrate. Later that same day, Danielle’s mother showed up with her own batch, so the extras had to be given to an adjacent classroom. I am a parent volunteer in the classroom. One day a week I take four or five students at a time out into the hall and work with them on short projects so the teacher can devote more time to the groups left in the classroom. This sliver of time with these students has been breaking my heart.

Last time I was there, it wasn’t yet Danielle’s birthday, but she was in the pre-birthday haze that comes over most children as the day inches its way nearer. “My mom and dad are doing an experiment” she tells me. “I might get a phone for my birthday, but I have to carry a pretend phone and see if I don’t lose it, cuz a real phone is REALLY expensive if you lose it.”

I should tell you that Danielle is turning seven. “Did you know,” she continues, “that my mom was pregnant with me when she was fifteen?” 

“No,” I tell her, “I didn’t know that. You’re lucky to have such a young mom . . . . Did you know that Abe Lincoln taught himself to read and write?” I try using the syntactical parallelism as an opportunity to ease our way back into the activity I’ve been put in charge of.

Danielle is one of twenty students. The school sits in a well-cared-for, mountainesque  neighborhood, replete with full-grown trees, a greenbelt that runs behind the school, and a couple of herds of wild deer who have made their peace with the intrusion of buildings. We live right down the street from the school.

Prior to this academic year, I was teaching 8th grade Language Arts at a local private Pre-K thru 12th grade school, so our seven-year-old attended four years there. I am also, however, working on a doctoral degree from the University of Denver and felt something just had to give. I stopped working full-time to open myself up to being a more involved mom as well as to the study opportunities that were coming my way through DU. Without me working at the school, however, we could no longer afford the tuition. Living a block away from a reputable elementary school helped ease our minds about our daughter’s transition. By all reports, it is a great school. I guess my point in telling you this is that, it doesn’t matter where the school is located. All schools have within their walls, stories that threaten to break you.

On picture day, as I walked Isabella to her outdoor line-up, Danielle’s grandmother was there, and I overheard her explaining to the teacher that she didn’t know it was picture day, and could she please get any forms that needed filling out. Later, when I attempted to make a playdate for Isa and Danielle, the grandfather told me he and his wife were trying to take on full guardianship, and that she would be at their house, but that I’d also have to speak to Danielle’s father.

I look at Danielle and wonder about what her three-household life must be like. One day, she showed up in her pajamas and it wasn’t pajama day—that would be the equivalent to a nightmare for my own child who has to ask me twenty times before we leave the house on pajama day if I am sure it’s pajama day today. In addition to the pjs, Danielle’s hair was unkempt, and I instinctively knew this must be the day when she is at the mother or father’s house. But like I said, Danielle is just one of twenty. Joslyn told me at the Valentine’s Day class party that her mother doesn’t drink as much anymore because they had to call the cops on her. Then there’s Nataya’s dad who doesn’t let Nataya’s mom in the house anymore. Golden tells me he never knows which house he’s going to—it’s like a surprise, he says, when they pick him up. And perhaps one of the saddest stories unraveled itself on Teddy Bear day. Derek was the only one to not have one, claiming he doesn’t own one at home either, so Mrs. Pugel gave Derek hers. “Everyone needs a teddy bear,” she tells me in private. Eyes shining, Derek carried and squeezed that thing like you wouldn’t believe. “That’s a cool teddy,” I tell him. “I LOVE my teddy,” he returns.  

In my Curriculum & Instruction program at DU, my classes are full of educators—many who have been teaching for decades, and each one has his or her own list of children in similar situations. Last week a fifth grade teacher who has been teaching for ten years says she has the class “who will break me.” With tears in her eyes, she explains she just can’t get through to this group who are collectively dealing with their own horrible stories, but who in return bring their pain to school and attempt passing it on to one another. Her biggest class bully’s mother didn’t come home the night before and the day was hell as a result. She couldn’t turn her back for a moment for fear he would be violent with one of the other children.

There are many things about the educational system that can and should change. Those dedicated to reform have my admiration and gratitude. They are much needed. But while those beyond the walls of the classroom are fighting the good fight, we have teachers who are losing their spiritual drive to do what they were called to do. It is immoral the way the American educational system disregards the spiritual needs of those left in charge of our most vulnerable eight hours a day, five days a week, ten months a year.   

These pages are dedicated to confronting the really sticky reality of the day-to-day trials faced by educators around the nation. It is a call to action, too. We must preserve the Art of Teaching, or our nation as a whole will fail in all the endeavors laid out by the numerous governing boards mandating more and better performance from those being crushed at the bottom—“not waving, but drowning.”

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