Sunday, August 25, 2013

Back to Teaching

Tomorrow is the first day of my school. I teach undergraduates at Webster University in St. Louis. I’ve two back-to-back philosophy courses in the morning, and an online course on which I’ll log on each day. Every semester, I’m nervous for a few days before classes begin, and then when classes start, I feel happy and positive.

I look back on my own college years. I felt very Charlie Brown-ish in college, willing to get in there and try but never feeling quite in sync. (At the time you could go into the campus prayer room and write your prayers anonymously in a notebook. There, I realized how many other students struggled with similar feelings of loneliness and worthlessness. I wish we could've figured out how to get together.) And yet …. I liked many fellow students, enjoyed almost all my classes, appreciated most of my professors, adored the well-supplied library, and as I’ve reconnected with ol’ college friends on Facebook, and I realize, to my chagrin and gratitude, how much people liked me back in those days. “Good grief,” as Charlie would say.

The college (and, obviously, God’s grace) put my life and vocation on permanent paths. I had caring mentors who were a huge influence, one in particular but also others. I rededicated my life to Christ during my first year, began to explore spiritual and theological work, and went to seminary in the fall of 1979. At least since the 1980s, I've contributed monetarily to my college each year.

I have a book by Gloria Durka, The Teacher's Calling: A Spirituality for Those Who Teach (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002). I like this quote (page 57; emphasis in text).

"Everything we do as teachers has moral implications. Through dialogue, modeling, practice and the assignment of best motive, a caring teacher nurtures the ethical idea. What we reflect to our students contributes to the enhancement of that ideal if we meet our students as they are and find something admirable in them. As a result of this confirmation, our students may find the strength to become even more admirable. We leave them with an image that is lovelier than the one they had of themselves. We do not need to establish a deep, lasting, time-consuming personal relationship with every student. What we must do is to be present to each student as she or he addresses us.

"In sum, to teach morally, we need to care."

I did have three profs at my college (not in my major areas) who made me feel very hurt when they were arrogant with me and dismissive---they certainly didn't try to meet me where I was. I feel frustrated at the memory as much for general as specific reasons: we Christians so often spoil our witness and potential influence by failing to be kind and caring. None of us are perfect, but as I've grown in my own teaching, I prefer to err on the side of compassion when students come to me with a question or concern. Thanks to the ability to keep in touch with people via Facebook, I send cards to former students when they get married, have babies, and so on.

Years ago, I considered writing my doctoral dissertation on the Neo-Thomist philosopher Joseph Maréchal, S.J. I recall reading an intro to Maréchal’s work which said something to the effect that Maréchal was so brilliant but had to spend his career teaching undergraduates. That remark makes me angry to remember. I personally feel very blessed that God has included undergraduate education in his call to me to serve him! The commitment of my teachers at my college became a wonderful example. My feelings of loneliness and uncertainty in college was also instructive; what a great blessing a kind and interested professor (like my mentors there) can be to a student, not just in the subject but possibly for his or her life.

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