Teaching is a Spiritual Endeavor
Recently, I’ve been pondering the idea that employment in general, and teaching in particular, can be regarded as a spiritual undertaking. Not spiritual in the sense that it pertains to religion, but spiritual in the sense that it satisfies the human yearning to connect to something that is greater than ourselves, to lead lives that have meaning, and to engage in work that reflects our hopes, ideals, and convictions.
There is no denying the fact that, for some people, labour is nothing more than “work.” It’s nothing more than a means to put food on the table and pay the rent. But for many of us who spend the most productive portion of our day and the most productive part of our life at work, our job is a crucible in which “who we are” and “what we believe in” is made public and tested. This may be a good thing. The problems that we face in our work push the boundaries of our knowledge, experience, values, and beliefs. These boundaries are pushed because of the work that we do. The workplace presents us with a wide variety of challenging decisions, and we are forced to either act upon them or abstain from doing so, with only our own’soma’ (mind, body, and spirit) to direct us in the right direction. It is in these unexpected surroundings, in the midst of an unfamiliar crisis or difficulty, in an unscripted moment of truth, and when we are left without a roadmap that we discover not who we believe we are but who we actually are. Spiritual, no?
If we are willing to consider our work to be both a professional and spiritual endeavour, we will be able to make use of it as a mirror that reflects what those in the outside world, specifically our pupils, go through as a result of their interactions with us. They show us both our most admirable traits and our unique abilities, as well as the areas in which we fall short of living up to our own standards of morality and ethics.
An experience I had with Kelly, a shy and sincere young seventh grader, stands out as one of the most vivid examples from the beginning of my professional life that I have retained in my memory. After handing back the 125 essays that I had revised over the course of the weekend to my students, I went around to each of their desks to highlight one or two aspects of their writing that I felt really stuck out to me. When I got at Kelly’s desk, I wasted no time in calling her attention to the fact that she frequently used run-on sentences and sentence fragments in her writing. When I looked down at her paper, my finger was pointing to one of her mistakes when suddenly, a teardrop sprayed on the page near my finger, ruining the blue ink. I looked down at her paper again. Before I could figure out what was going on, another building collapsed, followed by a few more. I stood up, and although Kelly had her head bowed, her entire body was visibly shaking as she sobbed in silence.
The fact that Kelly had written about the passing of her beloved pet dog came as a complete and utter surprise to me. Despite the fact that it was obviously very upsetting for her, I hadn’t taken the time to recognise it. I wasn’t even able to give her a kind pat on the back since I was too preoccupied with my own plans and the way sentences were constructed. However, I was in too much of a hurry to make even the slightest attempt at human connection or sympathy. I wasn’t considering her as a genuine person with real sentiments; rather, I was focusing on the part that she was playing, which was that of a student. I use this scenario as an illustration because, at the time, I held the view that each pupil possessed an innately special talent, and that each child had tremendous value and ought to be treated as though they possessed such value. It was glaringly obvious to me that there was a significant gap between what I believed and how I had been behaving up until that point. The inconsistency in my own behaviour was reflected in Kelly’s sobs.
Yes, this was very definitely a problem from a professional standpoint, but it was also an issue on a spiritual level. I made a commitment to myself that something like this would never happen to me again. How do I open my heart in such a way that I start seeing my pupils as persons and not simply as extras in the movie that is my life? How can I train myself to slow down, be more present in the here and now, and maintain a connection to my core beliefs and values? The answers to these issues were not to be found in any textbook but rather in my own personal spiritual development.
Over the years, when my new narrative of “work as a spiritual effort” took hold within me, I benefited not only emotionally but also professionally as a result of this shift in perspective. The more mature I became as a person, the more effective a teacher I became… and it worked the other way as well…the better person would make for a better teacher.
Because of this, it’s possible that our understanding of what it means to be a professional needs a significant overhaul, and it’s also possible that personal growth and professional growth are frequently two sides of the same coin. Regardless, all types of growth are important. We can make an effort to separate our “actual self” from our “teaching self,” but the reality is that we only have one self to begin with. It is impossible for it not to be reflected in the lessons that we present.
Because we share with them who we are as teachers, they not only learn from us but also benefit from the growth we experience on the inside. If we are willing to let them, our students may be valuable partners in our own personal and professional development. So may sound heretical to say it, but the teaching profession is an excellent environment in which to develop our spirituality.