How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

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