The truth is that teaching is messy...and I'm not talking about my desk. Teaching is messy because it deals with human beings with their own needs, desires and flaws. Teaching is messy because a teacher is trying to help their students to learn and one of the most important things that our students have to learn is to stand on their own and learn to be themselves; not the person that the media tells them to be, not the person I want them to be- themselves. That may mean making mistakes. That may mean struggling. That may mean an awful lot of things. It may mean a mess.
Contrary to the commonly held opinion of my students and the shifting papers of my desk, I don't like mess. Very few people do. When my desk piles up with paper and the shifting sands of marking, memoes and handouts cause me to forget what the surface of my desk actually looks like, I can feel my anxiety rising and my frustration growing. I feel out of control, anxious and out-of-sorts until I take the paper bull by the horns and begin to separate and sort. When I'm done, my life comes back into order and calm returns. As I tell my students, the state of desk is an index of my state of my mind. When it is in disorder, so am I. When it is straightened and organized, I'm calmer and more serene.
Mind you, it isn't my literal mess that has led me to this blog entry. The mess that is teaching is not, really, a physical mess (although that doesn't help), but a figurative one. It is, in fact, a relational one. How could it not be? I teach, all told, about a hundred and eighty teenagers in a year- all of them very individual, all of them with their strengths and vulnerabilities, their desires and needs, their hearts and their heads. They are all struggling to make sense of their lives in the here and now as well as the future promise that they represent. Some of them come through this period of growing and learning with grace and aplomb. Others face struggles that would daunt an adult. Some fail. Some succeed. Most get through. All of them have good days and bad days. So do I. The messiness of teaching is that no one can predict how we are going to meet or collide in the classroom. From one day to the next, no one, much less the teacher, can quite predict what will be needed that day. Sometimes it is firm hand. Sometimes it is a listening ear. No one quite knows.
Yet, amid the chaos of a busy high school classroom, I try to remember Henri Nouwen's definition of hospitality as a place where one's guests can be themselves (I'm paraphrasing, but I think I'm right). Yes, there are things to learn. Yes, there is marking to do and report cards to write. Yes, there are legitimate professional expectations upon me in my dealings with students. But, at the heart of it, the best sense I've made of my teaching is that my students are the guests that God has sent me for a limited time. They aren't mine to control. They aren't mine to manipulate. They are their own selves and that is what I need to value. I hope their stay with me will do them some good, but I don't even get to control that. That is probably a good thing, but it can be a hard thing.
Like my students, sometimes I succeed and sometimes I fail in my teaching. When I fail, I try to pick myself up and learn what I need to learn. The messiness of a high school classroom can be humbling. It can also be a beautiful thing as the place where my students come into their own. Teaching is messy, but, in that mess, I hope and pray my students find a safe place, where we play with language and rejoice in what we learn. If I can manage that, that's all the success I need.