Advent Day 5: Teaching and Learning

I have often felt, both as a teacher and a student, that the classroom is a holy and sacred space.

I say this now having dragged my 12-year-old to school this morning, this person who I know has always loved to learn (he would only watch documentaries for the first 10 years of his life, never cartoons or movies) but finds himself hating school now. He tells me often that he feels like a “robot” when he is there. The focus on grades and test scores seems to kill or at least dampen a natural love of learning, and it makes me so sad. So I know that the classroom-as-sacred-space is an immense privilege in my life, an experience that so many people never get to have.

The reading I’m looking at today, from RCL readings for last Sunday, in the second chapter of Isaiah:

 ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’

I am a teacher now in many arenas: the classroom of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, in the online learning environment of the corrections program at Ashland University, with my son at the dining table and when he’s practicing trumpet, with students at my harp, and finally, at church, with kids and adults of all ages. I love all of it. I love getting to see people grow; I love watching cognitive dissonance happen; I love provoking deep discussion soul-searching. I love challenging unquestioned, embedded beliefs and watching people start to see the world and themselves differently. I love getting to understand myself differently through my students insights.

I think the classroom has often felt like a sacred space because it has often felt like the place where I grow the most. I cherish the best teachers that I have had, stretching all the way back to elementary school, through high school and college and grad school and beyond, as people who really saw me and were able to provoke growth in me. A few of them were pastors; most of them were actual classroom teachers and professors. I can connect every single practice I have as a teacher to one of the teachers I have had. It’s like an art that gets passed down, having never been articulated but being shown, practiced, and shared through relationship. This is the kind of learning that forms us in our DNA, more than facts or figures or big ideas. This is the kind of learning that is transformational, that makes us into people who know how to change and grow and be continually surprised.

Sometimes I think this is my bottom-line goal in any classroom or learning environment: will you leave this space being more flexible, more open, more willing to grow?

My friends who grew up in conservative or fundamentalist forms of religion are always surprised when I describe faith and spirituality this way. So many of us are brought up knowing religion only as a place to be static, unchanging, inflexible, unthinking, uncritical, hard-line and tradition-centric. I am always happy for anyone to reject a spirituality or faith that keeps the world small and our spirits small. I truly feel that no spirituality is better than that kind of spirituality. On the other hand, there are so many other forces – not overtly religious – at work in the world that seem to want the same smallness for us as the fundamentalist forms of faith: a consumeristic mentality that wants to keep us taking, not giving, to the world; a capitalistic mentality that wants us to think that making money is our reason for being; a beauty industry that insists that it is the ultimate judge of our value; an educational system that tells us that the purpose of learning is to get a job  and get ahead, completely leaving out any notion of personal growth and finding joy in life; media who seem to encourage us to be paralyzed by our outrage 24/7.

In short, whether religious or not, we all battle these forms of growth-hindering fundamentalisms. And we all need, and depend on, good, authentic teachers to help provoke us to do the uncomfortable (and joyful) work of growth. And we all must be teachers in some way – not necessarily in a classroom – to keep that communal growth going.

One of the commitments I’m making for 2020, which I’ve already started, is to get serious about being better with Spanish. Over my life I’ve had times where I am better and worse with it, times when I use it more and less. But I live in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood now and I really feel the need to be more confidant and more skilled in Spanish. So I found a teacher, and had my first lesson last week. I am finding immense joy in the simple acts of learning and practicing language: my flash cards, working on translations, and simply using it more. An hour a day of Spanish feels good. It feels good to know that I am almost 40 and I am still actively growing, even as a student.

Thanks be to God!

 

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