In an educational climate characterized by debates about the implementation of a national test, the new book Stories of the Courage to Teach: Honoring the Teacher’s Heart (John Wiley and Sons) seems almost cheerfully anachronistic. Edited and, in part, written by Sam Intrator, this volume offers stories by 25 exemplary elementary, high school, and college teachers who insist that their profession is a heartfelt passion rather than a purely pedagogical pursuit. Great teaching and genuine learning, they collectively assert, are the results of a deep caring for students and subjects.
The teachers featured in this anthology have all, at various junctures, been on the verge of exhaustion, and the book is, in many ways, a sustained meditation on how they’ve sought to regain their emotional and spiritual strength. Many collaborate with like-minded colleagues; others take risks. Sometimes this entails an openness to criticism, as when a teacher refuses to dismiss a condemnatory letter from a former student. And sometimes it means venturing in new directions; one high school teacher, wanting his students to connect with the literature he teaches, has them spend several weeks exploring the question, “What is the meaning of life?”
Intrator, a former high school English teacher, was reached at his office in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he is an assistant professor of education and child development at Smith College. He was both realistic and hopeful in his assessment of the teaching profession.
Q: What was your own teaching experience like?
A: I taught in a Brooklyn high school of 3,500 kids. I had immigrant kids, kids running afoul of the law, and five classes of 35 students. Still, I never lost my love of teaching. But I saw that the institution was taking its toll on people and that they were becoming tired, resentful. People had come to work with a good heart and idealism and encountered this buzz saw of a system that was thwarting their best hopes.
Q: There’s a lot of talk in your book about the teacher’s heart, which is not what you typically get in a book about the teaching profession.
A: Yes, traditionally when we think of fixing schools, we think of repairing curriculum, fixing teachers, addressing deficits with kids. But I think the stories in the book suggest time and time again that any real, lasting improvements in teaching and learning are going to be captained by teachers who have passion, zest, and idealism. The stories are of teachers who came to this work hoping to be a real presence in the life of children but who have had that hope eroded over time. After five or seven years in teaching, most teachers have a moment of existential terror: Will I be able to sustain this kind of effort over a career? They need to return to the original source of their calling, which was to make a seismic difference in the lives of their students. Often they need to turn inward for a time, reading and spending time with themselves, remembering what drew them to this work in the first place.
Q: What are the forces that erode a teacher’s sense of hope?
A: In the current climate, teachers feel greatly under-appreciated. It’s very convenient for politicians to scold and chastise teachers for failing to solve problems that baffle religious institutions, civic groups, and government. Also, we’ve come through a boom time in the economy, and schools are still under-funded. Teachers see school funds voted down and feel underpaid. Finally, there are more and more mandates regarding how teachers are supposed to teach and how their work is to be assessed. Teachers feel under surveillance and condemned for not teaching in ways mandated by people who have had little experience in the classroom. You come into this work to discover new ways of teaching, to be expressive and creative, yet this is undermined in this climate where there is so much emphasis on exams, tests, and narrow cognitive performance. It makes teachers feel vacant and hollow because they didn’t come into the field to raise standardized test scores. One teacher in the book talks about the superintendent and principal sort of opening the door and walking in to make sure teachers are doing TAAS [Texas Assessment of Academic Skills] preparation. Here’s this guy who developed a great program to teach elementary school kids Shakespeare and who is told that there’s no time for this.
Q: What should teachers do when they feel on the verge of burnout?
A: Teachers take a variety of approaches, as you see in the book. Some looked at their lives and realized that they were simply overextended. They then cut back on the extracurriculars they were doing so that they could lead a more balanced life, both inside and outside of school. These are high-energy, high-quality teachers who, over time, had become depleted.
Others sought out new and different ways of thinking about their practice; they took courses, got involved with professional-development organizations, and sought out the community of fellow teachers. Still others found organizations like the Courage to Teach, a program that provides retreats for the personal and professional renewal of public school educators—places where teachers can think deeply about questions central to their practice. Sometimes, after teachers have been through these things, they then realized, “It’s not my classroom teaching that’s burning me out, but the fact that I’m teaching at an institution that simply may not be working.” These teachers then sought out places that were more collegial, or became professional developers, administrators.
Q: Sometimes a school is set up for failure.
A: Right, and then there are no options because you’re isolated and can’t make new possibilities come to the forefront. Teaching can be really lonely work; even though you’re in this frenetic place, there’s no place for collegial action. This can deplete you. Our best schools allow teachers to think collectively about the purpose of work. But few schools have ways to make this happen.
Q: How can schools become places that better nurture teachers?
A: The third section of the book is about education leaders who realize that for learning to really happen in their schools they need teachers who are animated by heart. Some of these are principals who bring teachers together to speak to why they’re in this line of work. We need not only to attend to students, but to the teachers who work there—nourishing them in ways that preserve that zest.
Q: How did you renew your own energies when you taught high school?
A: I took classes, helped coach the basketball team, joined the National Writing Project. And I found a cadre of colleagues I loved to laugh and commiserate with. Furthermore, teaching has always been tremendously inspiring for me. I don’t mean to sound trite, but I always had the belief that no matter how dreary third period was, tomorrow would be a fresh start. There’s something inherently optimistic about education, about working for the future of your students.