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“To be endowed with a benevolent disposition, and to love others, will almost infallibly procure love and esteem; which is the chief circumstance in life, and facilitates every enterprise and undertaking; besides the satisfaction, which immediately results from it.” -- David Hume, “Of Impudence and Modesty”
My youngest daughter, Emma Kate, was born two months premature. Although the doctors were confident in their demeanor and firm in their conviction that she would be “just fine,” on the night she was born I was not allowed to cradle her in my arms.
“Premature babies,” I was warned by doctors and nurses alike, “don’t like to be caressed.” Instead, my wife and I were allowed to have brief sessions known as “hands on” in which we simply placed our hands on the baby’s back, holding them firmly against Emma’s flesh.
I remember the first time I placed my hands on Emma. I am not sure if it was religious revelation or a fantasia of paternal wisdom bestowed in the finitude of the moment, but I knew in that extraordinary moment that being Emma’s father was the most important thing I would ever do with my life. I once stood on the top of a lush Virginia mountaintop at first light. I have waded in the waters of Caribbean water so clear and beautiful I felt as if I were modeling in a postcard. And yes, I have experienced beauty so penetrating and effulgent—in literature, in music, in the embrace of my children—it seemed to betoken a pathway to a higher plane of existence itself.
But none of it compares to the first moment I touched my beautiful daughter. I was delirious with love, for in that moment I knew what it meant to truly love something more than I loved myself. Like a painting that never tires to the eye or a piece of music that resonates in the soul for all time, the love of my children transformed me not just as a person, but perhaps most radically, as a teacher.
Having children was a revelation to me as an educator. I have always tried to be a good teacher. I want students to master the material and enjoy learning in the process. I tend to enjoy the company of my students and even when we have disagreements it is carried out in a spirit of cheerful civility.
But any human being that loves as much as I love my three children doesn’t simply want merry teachers and affable educators. We want life altering, once-in-a-lifetime, seismic event teachers who evoke extraordinary and edifying states of consciousness in our children, teachers who will inspire and transform, teachers who will broaden the world and electrify the mind.
Despite this highfalutin expectation any serious educator knows the reality. Most teachers are proficient but few are life changing. This naturally begs the question: what is the most important thing teachers do for their students?
Ask ten educators this question and one is likely to receive ten varied responses:
Encourage critical thinking as a way of understanding the world.
Strengthening the ability to communicate through verbal and written mediums.
Imparting basic knowledge about the world in which students live.
Teaching the political values and habits that are needed for citizenship in a democratic society.
Inculcating study and time management skills.
A case could certainly be made for each of the aforementioned possibilities. And yet, as I begin to hit my stride in this sixteenth year of my teaching career, I am utterly convinced that the most important thing a teacher can ever accomplish has little to do with curriculum and even less to do with test taking.
In short, no matter the subject we teach or the grade level we do it in, the most important thing teachers can ever do is model substantive adulthood for their students.
“Substantive adulthood,” I proudly admit, is a curious phrase, cloaked in both ambiguity and uncertainty.
For all the drudgery that adulthood entails with its never-ending carousel of obligations and deep cavern of duties, it is important to note that children learn from observation. The modern student spends far less time in the presence of adults than in previous generations—there are few fields to crop with our children and ever fewer factories for intergenerational congregation. Children spend the bulk of their days with other children and the consequence is that their most vivid exposure to adulthood often comes by way of the American teacher.
“Substantive adulthood” might be a hazy term, and yet there is nothing vague for those of us who stand on our feet six hours a day modeling what it means to be committed to our craft. Yes, a classroom is filled with curriculum and pedagogy. But look a little closer and one will discover that students are keenly aware of us as more than just teachers. We are in the midst of answering the questions they will soon ask themselves:
What does it mean to make a profession a passion? How does a person juggle the conflicting demands of family, work, and whatever else we choose to devote ourselves to? Yes, ordinary teachers teach curriculum. Extraordinary teachers model what adulthood filled with meaningful commitment looks and sounds like.
This is why character matter in the classroom. We are not just teaching from 7:30 to 3:00 every day. We are custodians of a specific social order that champions individual liberty and are exemplars of honorable adulthood. Our students ask us to defend the utility of education and the simplest and most persuasive answer is to merely say to them, “education allows you to be a single but muscular link in a chain leading to an uncertain future.”
I want Emma’s teachers to teach her writing, reading, and arithmetic. But in the process I hope they don’t forget to model honor, integrity, and a life lived to the highest standards. Emma is paying attention. And so am I. After all, it is the most important lesson she will ever learn in a classroom.