Teaching by Presence


       Having taught over the past decade, it’s clear that the generational gap between teacher and student is alive and kicking. Year after year, new classrooms full of students watch me walk in, guaranteeing that I won’t “get” them or understand their struggles. What’s more, these students continue to grow this same level of skepticism with their own peers, assuming that no one understands them. Now sure, this isn’t an across-the-board science, but it is a clear theme that I would bet is discoverable in almost any school—public or private.

        In a chicken-and-egg fashion, there’s another commonality adjacent to this gap: guardedness. What I mean is that despite this being a “post-truth” era, where Reddit and Twitter beg us to adopt mantras of autonomy and transparency, our students still work tirelessly to keep something protected and hidden. Observing kids in the classroom over these years, it’s obvious that what they're hiding will inevitably change, however the deeper problem remains the same—vulnerability is a scary. In my opinion, vulnerability is a vital, yet missing link to better aid our overly pragmatic culture. Without it, the demands for “transparent authenticity” via social-media become clanging gongs of detached autonomy.

        Speaking as both teacher and individual, there are two quotes that have had an unmistakable impact on my life, so much so that when reread today, still impact me as if it’s the first time hearing them. The first is, "The idea lives not in one person's isolated individual consciousness—if it remains there only, it degenerates and dies." The second is more of a mantra, “The non-alibi in being,” or, that there is no alibi in being. Through these quotes, I’ve realized that if I hope to have the impact on the students that I pray for, then I need to be present with whomever’s in front of me in the given moment. I need to work against being detached. I need to be—not simply be a talking head who’s just daydreaming about becoming.

        I bring these quotes up to help articulate my ethos for teaching: If a student is to have inward growth, both in education and in virtue, they need to believe that they are valued. How can anyone believe that they’re valuable if no one takes time to hear their thoughts, or share thoughts with them? And how can anyone assume they're valued, if the person they’re with is detached, daydreaming of being somewhere else or with someone else. So, in the words of Bakhtin, if a student is to thrive, their ideas need the context to thrive.

        The teacher should be conscientious to establish a context and posture of dialogue, and not merely an attitude of objective monologue, self-flattery, or apathy. Furthermore, if the student is to step out from behind his or her guardedness, they will want to see that there’s someone there who’s wholly invested, and not just half-present. And while we all have “bad days” or are just plain distracted, what teacher signed up for that career with the intent to not invest in others or spend time molding others’ ideas? It’s in this reality where accountability sits: if you’re going to be present and intentional in another’s life, you can’t hide—or, as said above, there’s no alibi in being.

        Having taught under a variety of pedagogies, it’s important to note that there are different systems and expectations out there. That being said, here are two constants I’ve attempted to maintain to help reinforce my ethos while honoring the given school’s teaching style:

        1. An Awareness of Emotions: I believe the consciousness is very similar to a muscle, in that it can stretch, rest, cramp, atrophy, etc. Moreover, like a muscle, if you’re not treating the consciousness in respect to what else it’s connected to, you’re liable to over/underuse it, and therein, find limitations you weren’t expecting. I have my students take into account their emotional well-being—not daily, but every once in a while—with the intent to note where they are struggling. I use the metaphors of a wave—if you want to go further out into sea, you can’t sit on top of a wave (i.e. emotion), you have to push in or go under it to see what’s behind it.

       If the student’s feeling sideways about something, their cognitive work is susceptible to being split, and only partially engaged. For example, if he or she is angry about something done earlier that day, studying angrily, then constantly spending mental stamina to fight back judgments about the prior event is a probable, fatiguing outcome.

        2. Allow for a Voice: Just like strengthening a muscle, there’s a reward in both competing and completing the training. If the student has been accruing knowledge all year, but hasn’t had any outlets for expressing said knowledge with his or her voice, he will act like a bottle of soda that’s been shaken quite a bit. You can read it on the faces—they seem tightly wound and ready to burst… that is, if they haven't already closed off, and deflected the content with apathy. By teaching them mature, respectful push-back (e.g. Harkness table or formal debate), the students are both shown trust, as well as taught how to integrate well with others. This not only strengthens social awareness, but helps them correlate who they are and what they believe into a practical, relatable way with their society. It’s honoring their voice, while also giving them the tools to share that voice.

       In my experience, the teacher is most effective when he or she is more than a well of knowledge and trivia, and instead simultaneously strives to mentor in virtue and wisdom. However, here in our modern world, the stereotype leans heavier on the former job description, while the latter is pawned off onto other people. I mean, it’s easier. Less dirty.

       Shouldn’t that role reach past the books and standardized testing? Shouldn’t it lend itself to living well? To being well? To being whole and undetached? To being more empowering, and less self-promoting? If teachers are to help their students live well, then they themselves need to first learn to be, and then risk vulnerability to help the student’s be.

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Jordan is the Spiritual Life Director at Portland Christian School, as well as a local artist here in town. He completed both an MDiv and ThM, studying philosophy and aesthetics. You can see his art and read more of his thoughts at www.TowardTeleios.com