By David Hansen
Teaching is an ethical endeavor, a dynamic, ascending movement of teacher-student-subject matter-world. Teaching means “being with” students and subject matter in a concern-full, engaged, ontological manner. Rather than “applying theory,” teachers participate in a long-standing undertaking, captured in the Old English for teaching, “taecan”: to show, to illuminate, to guide.
[Read Class Action: The case for empowering our teachers from the spring 2019 issue of TC Today.]
The passion of dedicated teachers encompasses their deepest aspirations to achieve a meaningful life for students and themselves. Teachers find intense fulfillment in contributing to students’ well-being, or in a breakthrough with a struggling colleague, or in a rewarding communication with a parent or guardian.
Teachers teach for many reasons: a desire to work with the young; a deep connection with a subject; to advance justice and human flourishing. There is a felt notion of something larger than oneself, a sense of being chosen. Draw near, teaching seems to say. Come here. Look here. Be here.
The enactment of that call, like teaching itself, is often quite prosaic. But the most ordinary experiences can yield profound insight: the look on a student’s face; a student’s tone in expressing an idea; one student’s gesture to another. Such moments keep teachers passionate about their work.
The terms of teaching come to life in questions. Can I attune myself aesthetically, morally and intellectually to students? Can I respond to their ever-present “address” to me to be attentive? Can I bring a sense of wonder to who, what and how they are — and to the subject? Can I enact concern in vindicating, defending or advocating for teaching? Will I help others to preserve this crucial human undertaking?
We should support teachers in “meeting” these terms, developing an ethical relation with their work, and sustaining teaching against forces that would “melt it into air.” Those forces are all too real in our time — but so is the call to teach.
David T. Hansen is TC’s John L. & Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in Historical & Philosophical Foundations of Education. This essay is adapted from his February 2019 talk for the Distinguished Lecture Series of TC’s Department of Arts & Humanities.