Whenever I get confused about what it is that I am doing in life, I turn to the Bible; not just for spiritual guidance, but for the comfort that it gives me when I read about people who were sent by God to accomplish a task and they are frustrated along the way of getting it done. I am not saying that I was commissioned by a burning bush to teach in an urban school, but I do believe that teaching is indeed a vocation and a calling.
One of the people in scripture that I often think of when I am struggling with the job of teaching is the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah's job was not one to be envied. God called Jeremiah to preach to the people that if they did not stray from their ways, ways that displeased the Lord, destruction and death would be in end result. This was a message that most didn't want to hear, and it pained Jeremiah to deliver such a message. In Lamentations, Jeremiah cries over the plight and predicament of his people. He is saddened by the fact that they refuse to heed his call to change; he was saddened because he knew of the impending judgment that awaited them. Many teachers in the classroom share that feeling of sadness like Jeremiah did. They understand that their job is important, but they want students to understand that the job of learning is an even more important one.
Teachers are asked to complete a monumental mission -- teaching children in an effort to prepare them for life. There are many days where I, like many teachers, cannot believe the magic that takes place when in a class of 20 to 30 children, the lesson "clicks" for at least one student. Also, like many teachers, when in a classroom of 20 to 30 children, I find myself wondering sometimes what the hell I am doing and if the students are really benefiting from what I am trying to accomplish. Last week, I indeed had one of my latter days.
I can imagine how boring a class called Research & Study Skills would be had it been offered to me when I was a freshman in high school. So to "spice" things up, I allow my freshman the opportunity to debate opinions on current events on teams. The first few weeks, I choose the topics and then I allow the class to choose the topics. Based on student selections, this week's topic was a relatively easy topic -- who is the better all-around entertainer, Beyonce' or Lady Gaga? Last week as we engaged in the research, we looked up who won the most awards, who sold the most albums, who wrote more songs for other high profile acts and etc. The enthusiasm that came about was beautiful. If it were only the same for the actual debate; the enthusiasm only remained with only a few of the students. The teams debating were a microcosm of the class; one class was excited for the debate and the other team couldn't care any less about the debate. The more excited team, arguing in favor for Lady Gaga, created a 13-slide PowerPoint to prove their point. The "could care less squad," who was arguing in favor of Beyonce, wasn't even prepared to speak. Long story short, at the end of the class, no one wanted to debate anymore. Half of the class no longer wants to debate because they think that it is pointless while the other half of the class no longer wants to debate because they feel that debating isn't taken as seriously as it should be by the rest of their peers.
This instance got me thinking about the often used axiom, "You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink," but what about children? We can teach all children but we cannot make them learn? That doesn't even sound right, but the reality is everyone is not allotted the same beginning or the same outcome. As individuals, we all have our own priorities and things that we value more than others -- our differences, combined with the spirit of manifest destiny, enable each of us as human beings to carve our own destinies and make our own choices. Not all of those choices are wise. The great equalizer is education. Education does not guarantee a capitalist fantasy of material prosperity. What education does guarantee is that you have the opportunity to define what success and achievement means to you, and thus you will have the option as to whether or not you want to obtain it. This is why we (teachers) teach. We teach to educate people, we educate to empower people, and we empower so that people can lead. Debating activities aren't done to fill up time in my week; they are done to cultivate skills they will need for their whole lives. I refuse to give up on those students who believe that debating and the course, in general, is pointless; my students do care and it is my job to make them understand why they should.
With some ideas from other teachers and some seasoned guidance from my mentor, I'll go back to the plans and craft a way to help engage those who are not engaged. The key for me is to continue presenting opportunities for those essentials skills to be perfected -- researching topics, articulating opinions and ideas in both verbal and written capacities, and working in teams to accomplish a goal. I am reminded of what the Apostle Paul spoke to a young preacher named Timothy as he attempted to pastor the church at Ephesus. Paul told him in 2 Timothy 2-4:
"Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables."
As a teacher, my job is to teach... teach when the kids want to be taught, teach when they don't want to be taught, correct and instruct them in an effort to prepare them for the life ahead because our children are influenced everyday by popular culture to seek after greed, materialism and selfish ambition. For many, the appeal of a music video outweighs the appeal of a lesson on the Vietnam War or how to write a research paper. But the job of a teacher doesn't change, even when feelings of the students do.