THREE CHEERS FOR BURNING HAIR
CONTRIBUTOR: Carol Kelly, AVLI Professional Development Lead and Instructor
Today there are 125 people counting on me to deliver. Personally. To each of them. What I deliver has the potential to impact them for the rest of their lives. Not all of them all the time, of course, but daily, and sometimes dramatically. Doing well and better by each of these souls occupies my thoughts as I greet the other people who count on me. We call these other people my family. Spouses, partners, children, ageing parents, extended relatives. Friends. I’ll include my dwelling place on the list because it, and its associated costs and maintenance, need me too. You see where this is going. It would surely be easier – at least psychically less stressful – to compartmentalize. Take a bit of a mental rest. Compartmentalizing, though, is not an option. I am a frontline worker.
Compartmentalization is not an option for teachers. Teaching is a vocation of relationships that exist and grow in a cycle of love. The first love is for learning itself. This first love evolves into love for a vein of knowledge that academics call disciplines, because that is what is required to get the learning done. Then comes the mature and compelling love for students, within whom the cycle begins anew. Love resists compartmentalization. Instead, it lights a flame within, a flame that has persisted through the oxygen-deprived, labyrinthine tunnel of a global pandemic. A break is long overdue. And yet, what about that doing well and better thing?
The commitment to doing well and better, despite a very real and rational need for a break, has drawn together a cohort of colleagues in the AVLI RESET program. The commitment is not small. The seven-month-long program involves ongoing and sustained support for experienced Catholic teachers to leverage existing capacities, while challenging them to center engagement, growth, and wellness in their planning, instruction, assessment and reflection practices. The teachers in the program have agreed to this, all while those 125+ people are counting on them still – every day – to deliver, personally. That is the cycle of love in action. As one of the teachers in the program describes it: “My goal is to make sure that I keep my spirit and my attitude toward my vocation fresh. I wear a lot of hats both within and outside school. I want to maintain a sense of wonder and enthusiasm from which both I and my students can draw life.“
The educational cycle of love is not new. The scaffold of both ancient and modern education is built upon it, from Aristotle to Abelard, from Ignatius to AVLI’s own namesake, Fr. Arrupe. All of them considered deeply being lit from within with a passion for learning and a quest to draw forth learning in others. All of them explored how this cycle of love interacted with the world, and wondered about how they might implement their teaching strategies more effectively. They all considered the power of education in response to the topical arguments of the day, of new social and educational landscapes impacted by local and global factors such as… well, pandemics. They saw teaching as a frontline of defense in a battle for a better future. Teaching as a vocation.
Vocare is the Latin origin of vocation. The word means to both draw forth and to draw out. As Jonathan Doyle puts it: “Vocation draws out of you the skills and talents God wants you to use… It also allows you to draw forth the goodness and possibilities inside your students. When you’re tired and disillusioned [you] remember that something bigger is happening.” This is at the heart of Catholic education. Catholic education views the response of education to the world through the ideals of magis – more. More than learning for learning’s sake. Learning as fuel to make the world a better place. Education in a faith-based community means understanding that the cycle of love begins with A Godhead as the One who has lit the original flame. To paraphrase Saint Aquinas: “The teacher does not brighten the student’s intellectual capacity,” – only God can do that - “but helps the student see things they have not seen before.” De Veritate, q.11. And, when a student truly sees something that they have not seen before, their teacher sees in their eyes a flame kindled, hears in their animated voices the electric current of curiosity.
For the past month, I have had the privilege of walking with the teachers in the RESET program as they made their way through the first portion of their seven-month journey in the program. Notes from our conversations reflect the flame that burns within them, a flame fueled by love for their students and love of their vocation. In their own words, they express goals for students who will be: “Independently analyzing big ideas and relating them to their community;” “Self functioning;” “Self-propelled learners;” “Fully awake and exchanging joyous words as I enter the classroom;” and “On fire with curiosity.”
I hear echoes of Rafe Esquith’s famous story about being so ‘in the zone’ with intent to help one student in a chemistry lab get a flame burning in her alcohol lamp that he did not notice, when the wick lit, that the flame had ignited his hair. As Esquith writes: “…as ridiculous as that was, I actually thought, if I could care so much I didn't even know my hair was on fire, I was moving in the right direction as a teacher — when I realized that you have to ignore all the crap, and the children are the only thing that matter." Having gotten to know these teachers, I can attest that – while their hair may not be on fire – they are definitely lit from within.
The teachers in the program, I’m certain, would want you to know that they are not unique among their peers. They are, in point of fact, among the most humble and self-deprecating group of people I’ve ever met. They would likely want you to know that they represent and reflect the goals and ideals of their peers across the spectrum of all educators – faith-based and otherwise. Their academic disciplines span the interdisciplinary nature of a holistic education, and their experience spans the breadth of those who have been in the classroom for 45 years to those whose vocations are less than a decade in the making, and who are braving a new school environment in this shifted post-pandemic landscape. They are teachers who have been given assignments to teach outside their discipline, teachers who still find their discipline riveting after 20 years, teachers who work to light the flame of curiosity across the fields that include: Global Literature, Philosophy, Spanish; the Hebrew Bible, AP Chemistry, British Literature, Health; Ethics; World Religions; AP History; Honors English; and Theology. They are teachers serving extra duty as coach, peer advisor, and Kairos leader. They are teachers eager to be ‘in the zone’ who are daily fulfilling Saint Aquinas’ goal of integrating faith and reason. They view “researching, analyzing, cross-referencing, discussing, integrating, drawing conclusions, and generating ideas with a community of [students] as sacred processes that bring about new life.”
The teachers in the RESET program provide a window through which we can see and appreciate the contribution and enormous responsibility that they and their colleagues willingly accept each day in classrooms across the world. It makes me – and I hope you – want to open that window and cheer them on. Grab a pot, stand on the porch, sing an aria, and get the dog barking. And, should your neighbors think you’ve gone nuts, remind them that love cannot be compartmentalized, flames are out there being lit in classrooms across the country, and that there is a teacher out there on the frontline striving to help students see what they have not seen before so that their world – and ours – will be a better place for all.
vol 4 issue 4