As a child, I was always vaguely surprised to discover that my teachers had lives away from the classroom. Spotting a teacher at church, the store or a local festival raised my eyebrows in a shock of recognition, as if I’d come across a rare bird transplanted from its native habitat.
My surprise from those days now surprises me. Why was I so stirred at seeing my teachers outside of class? Had I assumed that they lived beneath their desks, like enterprising trolls, after the closing school bell rang and everyone else went home?
Even after we’re supposed to know better, many of us continue to think of teachers as abstract beings. With the return of another school year, I’ve noticed a new flurry of newspaper op-eds in which the authors offer ideas for improving education. Many of the pieces are worthwhile, although they tend to view teachers as instruments to be fine-tuned or adjusted, like so many cogs in a wheel. What one misses in most of these commentaries is any real sense of teachers as human beings rather than mere vessels of data.
Now that Labor Day is upon us, most of the students who started the new school year have probably completed their “What I Did This Summer” essays for English class. Maybe we’d all learn a little something if teachers were also required to write “What I Did This Summer” essays — and the rest of us were required to read them.
What teachers do away from campus can reveal much about the insights they bring back to students. Some teachers take summer jobs to support their modest incomes, and quite a few others spend the summer not as teachers, but as students.
I was reminded of this over the summer when, as part of my writing work, I was asked to share some of my knowledge with elementary and high school teachers who had gathered for a monthlong course of instruction at Indiana University.
Because I’d taught teachers before, I knew that I’d have to leave plenty of time for questions. Even so, the questions continued during class breaks and at lunch. I would have been flattered to think that this spirit of inquiry was a response to my brilliance as a speaker, but the participants in the program were equally inquisitive of other lecturers.
My experience reminded me that the best teachers are also lifelong students. Their teaching is simply an extension of the work they started as young learners on the other side of the classroom desk.
Curiosity is a difficult virtue to quantify, but we know it when we see it in a teacher. Teaching, like journalism, engineering or any other profession, isn’t blessed with uniform perfection, so some teachers are better than others. But the best teachers have a light in their eyes and an active engagement that tells me their curiosity is still very much alive.
My hope, at the start of every school year, is that my children will find such teachers, and that the curiosity coming from the front of class will prove contagious.