“As good teachers weave the fabric that joins them with students and subjects, the heart is the loom on which the threads are tied, the tension is held, the shuttle flies, and the fabric is wretched tight. Small wonder, then, that the teaching tugs at the heart, opens the heart, even breaks the heart – and the more one loves teaching, the more heartbreaking it can be. The courage to teach is the courage to keep one’s heart open in those very moments when the heart is asked to hold more than it is able so that teacher and students and subject can be woven into the fabric of community that learning, and living, require.”
The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer, 1998
Answer quickly and without pausing… “Who were your most admired and respected teachers from kindergarten through college?”
Bet that some of you responded without hesitation and some may be still thinking.
For some of us, the name(s) emerge instantaneously, along with a soft smile. We have known their names most of our lives. Maybe not during our apprenticeship, but with time, the names became imprinted in mind, heart and spirit. They were our Wizards and Sorcerers.
As an educator for some 45 years, I often ponder the question, just to see if my responses remain the same – and they do. The names of my heroines and heroes quickly surface affirming the reasons why. The only difference is that the reasons now have more meaning and fondness. I now know how they changed my life.
You see, the ones I remember not only taught content, but they constantly reinforced what we are inherently born with – that insatiable passion, curiosity and desperate need to inquire and to know.
They did not ask us to only embrace a subject matter, but to pursue knowledge and its wonders. For these superheroes, learning was not tied to any one department. For them, their charismatic Pied Piper song, dance and style were as instinctive as breathing.
Their opening syllabus did not create fear nor doubt but promoted expeditions. They were excited about the journey and could not wait to get us started. They shared an energy as soon as they entered our learning space – a space we would learn to venerate by our mutually respected presence.
They seemed to have an aura – a vibe that drew us to them. We just had to stop and say hello when passing by their classrooms, because we knew the response would be immediate and honest.
The classroom was not her/his space but ours – a safe space where critical questions were promoted and urged. It was not unusual to hear these gurus stop and ask a student to repeat a question and to urge the class to really, really listen . . .
“Listen, listen! Did all of you hear that marvelous question? Please, please ask it again! Listen, listen – what an incredible question! – Now let’s see if we can answer it!”
So we listened to the question again… dissected the language and tried to answer it with a barrage of possibilities. Without knowing, we were being taught the value of critical questioning and thinking.
Their classrooms were not brick and mortar but museums. Every inch covered with a plethora of academic “I Spy” curiosities – mysteries waiting to be discovered, a riddle or two, invitations to pause and wonder. We were asked to not only look but observe.
The images were not tokens to impress a visiting principal or parent(s) (put up in September – taken down in June). These learning spaces were extensions of what was important for us to constantly think about – our world, our environment, our citizenship, each other. They created islands of learning.
Posters, quotes, pieces of art were ever present, asking us to pause and reflect on their meaning. We saw faces that mirrored each of us – not just some. You may think that what I am describing must only be an elementary school classroom. You would be wrong.
A visit to their office provided a visit to a museum of books, drawings and messages to keep wondering, prodding and examining.
There was a flow when they spoke. We wanted to listen. They seemed to always be telling a story and acting it out. All of them were always teaching “language” regardless of the subject matter.
They were masters of enhancing comprehension with synonyms, antonyms and metaphors, realizing that regardless of the subject matter, language empowered teaching and learning – from the science lab to the playing fields – language ruled and mattered!
These master teachers were able to shift methods, noticing when we were drifting. That is, when the language was getting a bit too boring or droning. They drew our attention, not to themselves, but challenged us to walk with them towards open canvases in black and white, slowly turning them into vibrant landscapes in living color.
They urged and dared us to try, and so we did. They never shamed us for not knowing. They seemed to know that with time, we would learn this or that – if not today, tomorrow. Some of us required a little more time to catch up and exhale.
I remember that deliciously good feeling when conceptualization was affirmed and validated – not by a grade – but by connectedness. They provided the dots and we connected them. The fear of learning new material no longer held me hostage.
My stellar teachers seemed to always realize that their course was only one of many. They knew we had homework, quizzes, tests, papers, projects, sports and activities – not to mention all that was happening at home – the good, the tolerable and not so good.
They knew that school was a temporary home away from home and that each day, all that encompassed family, environment and reality was waiting for each of us. Master teachers seemed to know that our backpacks carried more than books and that our affective domain was also in one of those zippered pockets.
They recognized that family dynamics were constantly at play and could encourage or stop learning. Each tended to instantly notice that while being present, some of us wanted to remain invisible. They could feel when loss and trauma would silence us and so would whisper, “Let me know what I can do. How I can help? I will be here for you.” No more, no less, but said with authenticity and credibility that was not only heard but felt.
These magicians never saw us as a collective noun. They saw us individually trying to discover those illusive learning styles that we kept secret. They knew that each of us had our own cognitive story that impacted our learning and behavior. Dyslexia, trying to focus with undivided attention, perceiving letters, words and symbols dancing all around. They made a point of discovering us and provided strategies and tools to avoid the crevasses – tools that last a lifetime.
These Wizards and Sorcerers always transcended the subject matter; they never hid behind it. They realized that their expertise developed over time, going through those lesson plans and textbooks over and over and over.
They went beyond just teaching as they had been taught, but pursued education as an “art form.” Therefore, they developed their own styles and methods as they embraced personal and professional growth. How could they ask us to continue to think outside boxes if they were not willing to do the same?
They never forgot that once upon a time, they were novices learning new content. Their demeanor demonstrated humility as they left their academic professorial egos at the door. There was no intimidate with degrees or titles. They just shared knowledge with grace and style rather than force-feeding it.
Along the way, I did learn some content. Not as much as I should have or could have – seemingly always trying to catch up. That College English Proficiency Exam was a doozy! But I got through it the third time around. Therefore, I learned not to give up even when a test defines you as not worthy.
My years of learning were turbulent, often dysfunctional. But I was blessed with a mamá, papá, abuela, and a host of nurturers who were my first Wizards and Sorcerers. Ironically, the majority never saw the inside of a school – not a single day. But they knew how to teach – how to keep the “fogones” (the bonfires) – burning with the passion to pursue knowledge. Most often, nature was their classroom and story telling their method.
Through their persistent and relentless love, they provided the life jacket to keep me afloat through bi-cultural and bi-lingual rough waters.
Astute teachers addressed different cultures with respect, especially learning natives names difficult to pronounce. They had learned that some of their students lived in more than one social-cultural reality. These teachers were not offended by their students being bi-cultural and bi-lingual. Such open minded educators were the pioneers of their noble profession.
So aside from my ancestors, who were my Wizards and Sorcerers? The first mago (magician) was a maestra (teacher) that I abruptly left behind in Argentina as I transitioned from elementary to middle school. The second was a holy woman in America who reached out and taught me English before, during and after school. Two high school teachers carried me on their shoulders across the finish line. Four college professors never gave up on me, daring me to keep writing, thinking and persevering.
Eight in total who I admire and love as educators and human beings.
Yes, I often drifted, but along the way Wizards and Sorcerers would appear. What I remember most is how they made me feel about pursuing knowledge and myself. They gave without asking anything in return. They nurtured and mentored. I listened, trusted and became their willing apprentice – I still am.