Letter to a Young Teacher
A beloved teacher’s final advice is a clarion call for public education — and for civilization itself.
This week I lost a hero.
She was my teacher. One of those teachers. The kind that stay with you. Maybe you had two or three.
Elaine Blais was one of mine. She was a formidable presence, her silver hair and thick-rimmed glasses conjuring Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.
But beneath her sternness was humour and a profound heart. Her seriousness belied her essence, which was warm and giving. If she came off as intimidating, it was because she understood the seriousness of her job. Hers was a tough love.
She possessed a formidable mind. She read widely and voraciously. And her standards were impossibly high. Hers was your lowest mark. Hers was where you were called on not to perform but to think.
She was preparing you — you see that now — for what was ahead, for the world in which you were already a participant. Her rigour was designed not to shape you in her own image but to shape you up for what was not far ahead. In fact — guess what, kiddo!— you were already a participant. No time to lose, then: wake up now. This world is one that hopes to catch you sleeping.
Days after news of Elaine’s sudden death, I turned to a letter she sent me in late 2008. Obama had just been elected president; and though the western economy was grappling with a recession, there was a feeling of social optimism which today feels distant.
The paper is thick and torn by hand; the ink stands out sharply against the cream-coloured pages. The cursive is exceptional. There are no errors.
I’d been offered a acceptance to teacher’s college, and, debating whether to accept it, I reach out Elaine. She’d worked in education for over three decades and, I reasoned, would have some insights — or at least, would tell me to stay away at all costs. Either way, I knew she would be straight with me.
This letter was her response, written a couple of years into her retirement. In it she describes the role of the teacher, explains the state we’re in, and outlines — with prophetic flair — a path forward.
The letter is more than a pep-talk to a former student. It is a clarion call for the future of public education. Her words ring like a prophecy, presenting a way forward when the path has for many never been more obscure.
“A new generation of teachers are called upon to do this difficult work. To stand in classrooms all over this country and continent and shut down the noise machine so that all the children to come have the option to become adults.”
That, she wrote, is “the task of today’s teachers.”
I share excerpts below to pay homage to her memory, and in the hope that her advice might connect with whoever needed, like me, to hear it.
I’ve become very interested in the new environmental movements sweeping the world. […] I’ve decided I have to do my part and I’ve been exploring several avenues for activism. There’s a lot that needs doing and there isn’t a great deal of time to get it done.
My generation started out as iconoclasts and ended up (to a large extent) as reactionaries. I don’t want to accept the status quo — I want things to change and change soon and decisively so I’m going to put my shoulder to the wheel and see where the path will lead.
We’ve grown so complacent because we’re so certain about our society’s dominance in the world. I’m afraid all of that must, of necessity, change and a lot of us are going to be pretty upset about the sacrifices we’re going to be called upon to make. Our whole idea of “success” and what “prosperity” means is going to change.
I hope I’m around to see it — because a new way of thinking is beginning to emerge. It’s a new definition of life that involves something more than buying things. It means a return to a more local way of life, a rebuilding of communities decimated by the overriding pursuit of money and status. I see it as entirely positive — people do much better in small groups than they do “en masse.”
I have always been nervous about large groups of people […] I admire [those] who have the temerity to speak out and make themselves heard no matter what the mass of people are inclined to believe. […]
Our whole idea of “success” and what “prosperity” means is going to change.
So, you’ve decided to give teaching a try. Good for you! I loved being a teacher. I think I was born to be a teacher and I never regretted for a moment the choice I made.
It was not an easy life, but it was so interesting and such an ongoing creative experience. Every day was a new experience and I learned so much. I felt privileged to play my small part in the formation of the young.
There is nothing more important and even though teaching is the least “professional” (in terms of respect and certainly monetary compensation) of all the professions — it remains, indisputably, the most important. It is seminal. Without it there are no other professions.
Teaching language is, in my opinion, the most challenging and crucial of all the disciplines. Meaning is a function of language. The more language the easier it is to grasp meaning.
It’s self-evident but the “mise en commun” of language, the consensus required to arrive at meaning is daily being undermined by our increasingly meaningless pursuits and, as a result, we (society, young people, old people, politicians, everybody) are becoming so language poor that much of the meaning of our lives (individual lives and societal lives) is being lost.
The internet, that endless digital forest of mediocrity, is blurring the lines and corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics, to the arts, to commerce, to values and culture so that kids can’t tell the difference between credible facts put forth by knowledgeable experts and trained professionals and what they read on joeshmoe.blog. Every posting is just somebody else’s version of the “facts.”
It’s survival of the loudest, the most aggressive and opinionated. Digital Darwinism. (Poor Darwin, he would have been appalled to be cited in this connection).
Because this transformation of culture into cacophony is happening right now and with such rapidity, it’s imperative that education step in and build some firewalls, create some breathing room so that reason and deliberation have at least a fighting chance.
A new generation of teachers are called upon to do this difficult work. To stand in classrooms all over this country and continent and shut down the noise machine so that all the children to come have the option to become adults is the task of today’s teachers.
Young people like you, who are intelligent and knowledgeable and courageous will have to do this. You’ve got your work cut out for you.
But I envy you. It’s going to be exciting because during your career education is going to change and you and your colleagues are going to begin that change. I hope you do a better job than my generation did.
For years I argued that we had to come to grips with the very fundamental differences we could see emerging in our student population — the decline of the nuclear family, the all-pervasiveness of the electronic media controlled by pueriel adults dedication to the eradication of reality and the banishment of all critical thinking, obligatory consumerism, disconnection from the earth that sustains our very existence and on and on.
But we continued to teach 21st century children in a 19th century manner. We couldn’t step out of our comfort zones and actually re-write curriculums to meet contemporary needs. We didn’t change the way we trained our new teachers and we let standards slip because impeccable excellence was no longer fashionable.
It’s imperative that education step in and create some breathing room so that reason and deliberation have at least a fighting chance.
When I was in high school, I feared the outbreak of nuclear war. We used to do these drills where we would practice how we were to behave in emergencies. Crazy stuff designed to scare little kids to death. Too much reality for today’s pampered tots. We were afraid of some exterior danger.
I remember when I read “1984” in high school thinking that violent totalitarianism was a real possibility — the Cuban missile crisis — the Vietnam war — reinforced that belief. But now I see that isn’t what was most worrisome.
Orwell got some things right. The whole idea of NEWSPEAK for instance, that’s happening now, a kind of constriction of language to the point where complexity of thought will become an impossibility.
Huxley got it right with “Brave New World,” amusing ourselves to death, instant gratification of all the desires corporations tell us we have. Capitalism has come full circle. It has satisfied every “need” of the developed world and now must manufacture “wants” in order to continue the incredible overproduction that our prosperous lifestyle is based on while at the same time it (capitalism) is completely disinterested in and incapable of satisfying the needs of the poor worldwide.
We talk about justice, equality, liberty but what really concerns us is shopping.
Democracy relies for its existence and a competent populace capable of discernment of informed judgement of skepticism of critical thinking. That’s where the forces of education has to be. In the absence of competent citizens a Bill of Rights is just a piece of paper.
If our democracy is to survive we need citizens to be education in common schools and public universities. Democracy depends on civic learning, public participation and common consciousness.
“We” has to mean more than “me” and someone has to tell our children — that’s what you have to do. You’ll have to compete with iPod and XBox and xxx porno world and every other impediment to thought that floats around the vast electronic sewer.
It’s going to be so much fun. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.
But you and others like you, smart, well-informed young people will be able to do it.
The best advice I could give you right now is Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes: “This above all, To thine own self be true.” Kids can spot a phony like nobody’s business.
You’ll feel your way. You’re perceptive and you have a kind heart. Kids need that. They need kindness.
They also need to enjoy learning. Classrooms should be welcoming places where you and your students can feel at ease and disposed to learn. Kids respect knowledge when they recognize it.
If you can achieve some ‘mental silence’ your students will have an opportunity to appreciate your expertise and you can hook them with wonderful books and stories that will blow the screen doors of their minds and make them think and make them love thinking.
It’s going to be so much fun. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love.
Sorry about this long preachy letter. You know me. Once I get started … Just skip the boring parts.
Until I hear from you again, keep well.
PS. I love Obama — in spite of the fact that his presidency may turn out to be protectionist, I think he’s smart — I’m so tired of stupid!
Proceeds made from this story will be donated to one of Elaine’s chosen causes, the David Suzuki Foundation, in her memory.