One of my main learnings as a teacher is that I am always teaching. When I began as a professor, I was very concerned about my classroom—getting lectures and other learning opportunities in the best possible shape. I concentrated on the actions of teaching.
As I move into a new stage of life, I am now more concerned about my life—getting my attitudes and actions in the best possible shape. I am concentrating on the attitude of a teacher. Or to say it another way, I have learned that the personhood of the teacher stands above the performance.
Parker Palmer helped me to see this in his book The Courage to Teach. His main thesis is that teaching is autobiography—we teach ourselves, not just our subjects. We teach from the core of our being, not just from the content of our acquired knowledge. We teach who we ARE.
I should have realized this sooner, because there’s an old adage, “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” But now, I see it—in myself, and in other teachers around me. There’s no greater danger than forgetting I am always teaching. How I behave in the meeting room is as important as what I say in the classroom. What I say in private is as important as what I declare in private.
Without getting complicated, what this means is that we live with an undivided heart. We cannot be one way in one place and be someone else in another place. We not only “are what we do,” but even more, “we do what we are.” Congruence, Eugene Peterson calls it. Integrity, Webster calls it. I am fooling myself to think I can be a good teacher apart from also being a good person. Long after my students have filed away their notes capturing my words, they will hold memories of “who I was” in their hearts.
Our being is what colleagues and students respect and remember. How we treated them will linger long after they’ve forgotten what we told them. We are always teaching.