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The Heart Of The Matter

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When you get right down to it, every teacher faces one existential question: "What am I here for--to journey with young people into the great world of knowledge and ideas or to shepherd a bunch of mostly unwilling students through the everyday rituals of instruction and assessment?'' Who among us has not sought the former and suffered through the latter time and again in our teaching?

Just maybe it's time to face this issue head-on and resolve to no longer accept an answer that defines a teacher as a "classroom manager,'' or "deliverer of instruction,'' or "assertive disciplinarian,'' or "keeper of the grade book.''

The alternative to such roles is to assert that one is a passionate teacher: someone truly enamored of a field of knowledge, or deeply stirred by issues and ideas that challenge our world, or drawn to the crises and creativity of the young people who come into class each day--or all of these. To be a passionate teacher is to stop being isolated within a classroom, to refuse to submit to a culture of apathy or cynicism, to look beyond getting through the day.

Only when teachers bring their passions about learning and life into their daily work can they dispel the fog of passive compliance or surly disinterest that surrounds so many kids in school. I believe that we all have it within us to be passionate teachers and that nothing else will quite do the trick.

In too many classrooms, we see the sound and smoke of note-taking, answer-giving, homework-checking, test-taking, and the forgetting that so quickly follows. And in the end, there is creativity for a few, compliance for most, rebellion for some, but not much fiery engagement of the mind and spirit.

What counts is students' willing engagement. They have to want to see where their ideas and energies might take them, to follow their curiosity and intuition to useful places. They have to get unshy about being smart--to stop using their brains to put each other down or to get around doing the work we assign them. Today's students need help from teachers who are more than well-prepared or genial or fair. They need teachers who have passions.

Passion itself isn't the goal of education. It's a bridge that connects us to the intensity of young people's thoughts and life experiences--things that they too rarely see as part of school. Once that connection has been made, we can help transfer passions about ideas into habits of hard work and discipline that will remain with students even when peers cajole them to "take it easy.'' It's not the whole story, of course, but passion is at the heart of what teaching should be if we want to be mentors for young people who sorely need (but rarely seek) heroes of the mind to balance the heroes of brute strength and exotic fashion that surround them in the media.

Yet as I look into hundreds of classrooms, watch all kinds of teachers working with a bewildering variety of students, when I ask myself what makes the greatest difference in the quality and depth of student learning--it is a teacher's passion that leaps out. More than knowledge of subject matter. More than variety of teaching techniques. More than being well-organized, or friendly, or funny, or fair.

Passionate people are the ones who make a difference in our lives. By the intensity of their beliefs and actions, they connect us with a sense of value that is within--and beyond--ourselves. Sometimes that passion burns with a quiet, refined intensity. Sometimes it bellows forth with thunder and eloquence. But in whatever style a teacher's passion emerges, students know they are in the presence of someone whose devotion to learning is exceptional. It's what makes a teacher unforgettable--this caring about ideas and values, this fascination with the potential for growth within people, this fervor about doing things well and striving for excellence.

Passion may just be the difference between being remembered as a "pretty good teacher'' who made chemistry or algebra "sort of interesting''--or being the person who opened up a world of the mind to some students who had no one else to make them feel that they were capable of doing great things with test tubes, trumpets, trigonometry, or T.S. Eliot.

How, then, is a teacher "passionate''?

You can be passionate about your field of knowledge: in love with the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the prose of Marcus Garvey; dazzled by the spiral of DNA or the swirl of Van Gogh's cypresses; intrigued by the origins of the Milky Way or the demise of the Soviet empire; delighted by the sound of Mozart or the sonority of French vowels.

You can be passionate about issues facing our world: active in the struggle for social justice or for the survival of the global environment; dedicated to the celebration of cultural diversity or to the search for a cure for AIDS.

You can be passionate about children: about the shocking rate of violence experienced by young black males; about including children with disabilities in regular school activities; about raising the low rate of high school completion by Latino children; about the insidious effects of sexism, racism, and social class prejudice on the spirits of all children; about the neglect of "average'' kids in schools where those at the "top'' and "bottom'' seem to get all of the attention.

To be avowedly passionate about at least some of these things puts one apart from those who approach each day in a fog of fatigue, or who come to work wrapped in a self-protective cocoon. The passion that accompanies our attention to knowledge, values, and children is not just something we offer our students. It is a gift we grant ourselves, a way of honoring our life's work, our profession. It says: "I know why I am devoting this life to children.''

Let's distinguish passionate teaching from mere idiosyncrasies. Lots of teachers have pet peeves or fixations: points of grammar, disciplinary practices, eccentricities of diction. These may, indeed, make them memorable to their students (for better or worse). But the passions I am speaking about convey much more.

What impresses me about truly passionate teachers is that there is no particular style of teaching, much less a common personality type, that epitomizes them. What unites them are the ways they approach the mission of teaching. They organize their curricula and their daily work with students in practical ways that play to their own strengths.

But how do we make passionate teaching happen? How do we shove aside all the stuff we're supposed to do and make room in our lesson plans for things we feel strongly about?

We may want to ask our students to study in depth the Cuban Missile Crisis, rather than surveying the entire Cold War history. Or study the ecology of one small nearby pond instead of covering all the chapters in the biology text. Or learn a lot about Emily Dickinson and leave other 19th-century poets to be discovered later in students' lives. Language arts teachers in an urban middle school may decide that learning to write good, clear, convincing prose is so vital to students' future success that they enlist colleagues in science and social studies and math to teach writing across the curriculum.

A high school history teacher in a rural New Hampshire town brought her intense interest in archaeology into the classroom by taking her students out into the woods in search of a long-forgotten graveyard. After watching her begin to carefully restore the site, they pitched in to clean and prop up the headstones. A week later, the class traveled to the local historical society to search for the records of the people whose graves they had tended. Each student became a 200-year-old former resident of the town and shared his or her life story in a presentation for the townspeople.

As passionate teachers, we share our commitment to active learning by showing, not just telling. We are readers, writers, researchers, explorers of new knowledge, new ideas, new techniques and technologies, new ways of looking at old facts and theories. Our very excitement about these things helps young people reach beyond their social preoccupations and self-centeredness. When we are no longer learning, we no longer teach because we have lost the power to exemplify for young people what it means to be intellectually active. Even though we may still be able to present them with information, we have become simple purveyors of subject matter, "deliverers of educational services,'' in the jargon of the field.

Students need us, not because we have all the answers but because we can help them discover the right questions. It's not that we always know what's good for them but that we want to protect them from having to face life's dilemmas in ignorance or in despair. Those adults to whom young people look for advice on serious life issues know how important they are to kids' futures. For all teachers, the recovery of passion can mean a recovery of our dynamic and positive influence in the lives of children.

This, I argue, is what education is. There simply is no education without a commitment to developing the mind and the character of learners. And in our time and culture, perhaps as never before, that commitment must be a passionate one if we want young people to heed that calling.

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