Saturday, February 28, 2015


"What strikes me as amazing, and right, and sane, was his capacity to share all that energy, that fire, with those around him, students and poets and friends. The only discernible principle I gathered from this kind of generosity seems to be this: to try to conserve one's energy for some later use, to try to teach as if one isn't quite there and has more important things to do, is a way to lose that energy completely, a way, quite simply, of betraying oneself."
-       Larry Levis:"Coming Home: Forty Essays on Phillip Levine"

“To teach as if one isn’t quite there.” What a line! That’s what often happens to teachers who think the lesson is in the curriculum. Even as a young college student trying out different philosophies of education, I was already saying things like “What you are teaching is yourself.” Of course, you need to work on lesson plans and curriculums and dazzling sequences that lead students from one understanding to the next, but ultimately you are sharing your way of perceiving and moving through the world. Some similarly inclined students will catch it, others will let it pass by, that’s just the way it works in the world. But all should at least be infected by the sincerity and authenticity of your passion prominently displayed and generously shared.

But of course, it’s easier to hide behind mere information because to wholly be yourself in front of a class is to be vulnerable. To open yourself up and publicly show your passion means you are exposed to the possibility of ridicule or apathy or kids whispering to their neighbor because they find talking about last night’s reality TV show more interesting than you. It can be brutal.

But the rewards are many. Below is an excerpt from a letter I received from a high school headmaster:

“Each year we ask our freshman students to share with us the name of a teacher who has been especially influential in his or her development. I congratulate you for being named by _____. She said, ‘Ever since I was three years old, Doug inspired me to become the musician I am today. Without the care and love he put into his teaching, my entire school experience would be different. I hope he understands the amazing impact he has had on my life and I thank him for that.’”

And then a note with from three 8th graders to go with their Valentine’s Day cookies:

“You have been our teacher since we were three and ever single one of those years instilled a deeper and deeper love of music in us. We’ve really begun to adore jazz after the curriculum this year and we love how you can make music history really interesting. You are a really fun and talented teacher. Thanks for being so cool!”

Well, if an 8th grader thinks you’re cool, it means you haven’t been cool and removed in your teaching. To be cool is to be hot, sharing your fire (see opening quote) with all your students.

Yesterday was my last day of school for a while— seven weeks of travel ahead teaching adults in Europe and Asia. I told my students how I’ll carry them with me wherever I go, brag about them, tell stories about them, share the music we’ve made. I know some part of them is thinking, “You’re leaving us? What the heck? Don’t you care?” And another part is saying, “Whatever. We’ll hardly notice you’re gone.” And both are true. I leave without guilt knowing they’ll be in the able hands of my two colleagues who also habitually give 150% of themselves and the kids will benefit from that. Part of the deal is to make yourself irreplaceable by doing things that no one else can do quite in the same way. And part is the stark reality that we’re all replaceable and life goes on just fine without us. All we can hope for is some echo of our presence and the more we give wholly of ourselves, the more we may be remembered. 

And of course, we don't do it for any future reward or cool Valentine's cards. We do it so as to not lose energy and betray ourselves.


  1. As a teacher who's felt uplifted by your conference sessions and books, discovering this blog has been a treat. Thanks for sharing your experiences in this format! Your post on teaching to share one's way of "perceiving and moving through the world" resonated with me a lot. I think all teachers cherish helping their students grow, yet I know I'm getting something deeply valuable out of the teaching process as well.

    This leads me wonder: Is blogging a similar process as teaching is for you as well? Does chronicling your thoughts in a digital format help you to not lose energy or betray yourself?

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    3. Thanks for your comment, Rich. Quick answer to your questions: Blogging has its similarities with teaching— in my case, a willingness to be transparent, honest, vulnerable and—well, confessional. But easier to do than teaching because the reader at the other end (unlike the student in the class) is invisible. Writing certainly gives me energy and helps me investigate the nature of that self that could be betrayed if I take a wrong turn. I would say that the digital format has nothing to do with it, except for the ease of getting it out quickly to readers.


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