Becoming Astronauts: Reflections on Worth, Good Teachers, and Good Teaching

For Jumi and Kendy


I come from a long line of Navy men and women. The family story of pilots, sailors, nurses, and surgeons developed on or around the water: we are Boston, Bethesda, Pensacola, San Diego. Every summer from when I was one until the year I graduated high school I spent June through August on shores just north of the California/Mexico border, and just close enough to the depths of the Pacific that for the greater majority of those years, I was convinced that I wanted to be a marine biologist.


Six years after my last California summer, I find myself beginning my third year as a high school English teacher in the Midwest, in the inner city, nearly 900 miles from the nearest ocean, with degrees in Philosophy and Psychology. How?


It is impossible to talk about “education” without first talking about stories. Teaching and learning are, after all, a set of relationships waiting to happen, the convergence of varying life experiences, values, and dispositions with the intention to ask and answer a semester or year’s worth of questions. As I approach my third year of teaching, I have decided to attempt to confront the question of what exactly makes a teacher–and her teaching–good. To do so, I will reflect on my experience of the practice of the two best professors that I had in college, Dr. Jumi Hayaki of the Holy Cross Psychology department, and Dr. Kendy Hess of the Philosophy department.


The first and best piece of teaching advice that I received came from that philosophy professor, about a month before day one of year one:


Do it all in a way that isn’t about you, but about something else.


As any 22-year old might, I had a difficult time understanding–let alone acting–in a way that wasn’t, at core, about myself. All of the descriptors that popular culture assigns a teacher came to mind: be giving, go the extra mile, be selfless, etc. The reason I lacked total understanding of the advice was that I mistook “not about you” to be “devoid of you.”


While there is nothing wrong with these popular descriptors, and while they do reflect some of the experience that I had with these professors, there was much more embedded in that piece of advice than I had initially been capable of uncovering. My interpretation of the advice was lacking the most important component: power. As I finally begin to piece together how power can descend in a way that involves–but is not necessarily about–the powerful, I find myself back where I began: the story.


In the domain of the classroom, the role of the teacher is one of power. She decides what to teach, how to teach it, the type of student work that is acceptable, and is “in charge” of the class. The consequences of these decisions have incredible impact on the story of the individual student. Namely, the teacher has the power to either equip the student with the tools to enact her story, or fail to. The teacher can either choose to be a facilitator, or choose not to be.


The enactment of any one person’s story requires the fulfillment of multiple criteria: First, it involves the acknowledgment that one’s story exists. One cannot enact a story if there is nothing to enact; if I do not know the type of person that I want to be, how I wish to think and communicate, or what my core interests and impressions of the world are, I cannot form a logical template from which to live my life.


Second, it involves the knowledge and understanding of which steps are necessary to enact the story. I cannot act in ways congruent with my ideal self if I have no template for those actions to be congruent with.


Third, it involves the conviction in ability to take those steps. This third step is popularly referred to as “empowerment,” and often involves encouragement and/or incentive from outside sources. Lastly, for one to enact her story, she must actually take those steps.


There is a quote that I am particularly drawn to that I believes captures the teacher’s potential role in this process:


“Autonomy is a tricky concept. To be free, you have to be able not only to do what you want, but to know what’s possible to do … Not knowing that it’s possible to be an astronaut is just as much a prohibition against becoming one as knowing and being barred from doing so.”


Enacting a story is, in many ways, about being free.


Up until recently, my understanding of what it meant to “know what’s possible to do” was limited to an awareness of a set of logistical requirements for a particular path,. “Knowing” meant  having a broad understanding of the types of endeavors that were available for pursuit, and the recognition of which boxes needed to be checked in order to get there.


Possibility, however, is vaster than mapping the trajectory of a life. A person can know and understand the steps that it takes for them to enact their stories. It does not necessarily mean that they will do it.


In thinking back to my undergraduate years, one of the most beautiful, and challenging (for all parties, I presume) conditions of the college student is that the story the freshman has enacted for the 17-19 years prior has not necessarily been her own. When I wanted to be a marine biologist, I was coming from a world where that seemed the best of all possible professions. But then I encountered ways of thinking about and “doing” life that I found exceedingly more interesting and in tune with the type of person I wanted to be: namely, Philosophy and Psychology.


I can imagine that as I get older, it will become harder and harder to remember or pinpoint the moment that I came into awareness of my own story, but I know that it did not happen alone. What my teachers did was first allow me to recognize I had the choice to opt into–or out of–ways of thinking and being that I had no previous access to. Quite literally, this is the first job of the teacher: expose the student to material, and subsequently require the student to not only understand, but communicate understanding in ways that make sense. The second job deals with how teachers treat student responses: namely, whether or not teachers treat them as valuable. My teachers allowed me to make sense of what I learned, communicate that sense, and subsequently validated my contributions as objectively worthwhile. Once a student notices, understands, and communicates knowledge that may become defining for their story, it is the duty of the teacher to subsequently name that understanding as valuable. Ironically, independent thought in the classroom (and consequently, outside of the classroom) often blossoms from dependence.


It is a rare and exciting responsibility to be able to expose developing minds to material that has the potential to help shape the way that a student sees the world, envisions themselves in that world, and subsequently acts among other people.


One of the most beautiful parts of teaching is that there can be a decidedly civic impact when done “well.” Contribution to the development of a world that is more just, kind, curious, and relentless in acknowledging the value of others, can be made by helping develop citizens who act as such. When a greater number and kind of stories are able to be enacted, the breadth of the definition of justice widens. When people understand that what they think, say, and do matter, they will almost certainly act as such. Perhaps the only way to show a person how to care for the world that she finds herself situated in, is to show that person that her story–within that world–is valuable, too. To steal a phrase I recently read, I have come to believe that teaching in a way that isn’t about yourself creates an “outlook [that] has become better adjusted to the needs of peace.”


Sometimes “empowering” the student involves the direct instruction of explicit skills: writing clearly, interpreting evidence in novel and plausible ways, communicating findings. Sometimes these skills are much softer: instilling confidence, challenging static habits of thinking, demanding integrity of both mind and opinion. These skills are what are necessary to the enactment of the story. Empowering the student assumes a capacity for grace: in mistake, error, in indecision, and in change of decision. Facilitating the enactment of a story involves the acknowledgment of necessity for growth.


A great education, it seems, is the consistent validation that one’s story is necessary to answer questions of how we ought to live. As students, have we learned to envision an ideal world and approach our stories with courage, or have we been lead in a direction where courage comes secondhand to what we have been told is practical or profitable? As teachers, have we facilitated the acquisition and improvement of “necessary” academic skills, but also allowed the ability to envision to what end those skills should be applied?


If, as a teacher, I am to do it all in a way that is not about myself, I must understand that the process of validation that I participate in is not necessarily my own. It means practicing in a manner that is not devoid of self, but already assumes the acknowledgment, development, and conviction of the worth of my story. It is placing other stories at the forefront.
So, in the waning August light, and on the heels of good, long days that feel distant from June’s frayed ends, I will again get the chance to stand in front of stories not yet read. When the dried leaves begin to carpet the park across the street from my classroom window in two weeks, I will teach with a singular hope: that I can do this all in a way that makes clear for my students the possibility of becoming astronauts, in the way that it was made clear for me.


Image courtesy of sandra, Flickr Creative Commons.


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