Celebrating fall -- when teachers `have to teach'

SEPTEMBER going into October is agony or ecstasy, when students and teacher first warm up to one another, or glacial isolation freezes them to their seats. The reason for this annual ordeal of fire and ice is that teachers are born, not made; theirs is not a chosen profession but a helpless vocation.

Moreover, neither nationwide academic certification nor courses in education can turn you into a teacher, although a teacher may need both very badly. Unless you live for the light in the eyes of someone who has discovered the blissful high of learning, you are not a teacher, you are an employee.

The people hired to teach in our secondary schools have the most significant job in the nation; they urgently need more money, more rigorous academic preparation, more community support and respect; but none of these will turn all of them into teachers.

If our children are truly our priority, we will find ways to improve salaries and subject mastery. What we cannot change is the sad fact that many hard workers doggedly standing up before classes day after day simply do not want to, like to, or -- and this is really the crux -- need -- to teach.

Teachers have to teach; they teach in their dreams -- and their nightmares are of classes that sit like stones. In elementary and secondary schools, they battle low pay, low esteem, suspicious students and parents, missing funds and equipment, overcrowding, and overwork.

In the colleges, faculty members are encouraged to talk to each other rather than to students. Concentrating on being a good teacher leads to absolutely nothing; you may not be fired for it, but you will certainly not be rewarded for it.

And the higher you go, the more unmentionable it is to excel in the classroom. While I toiled for a PhD that would enable me to continue teaching in college, I came up with what I thought was a contemporary way to involve students in the Troilus and Cressida stories of both Chaucer and Shakespeare. When I offered my insight to the graduate seminar, our professor twitched his affronted academic beard in dismissal: ``At _______'' he said, naming his prestigious Ivy nest with nasal scorn, ``we are not interested in teaching.''

Is it any wonder that we have, from nursery to graduate school, a system that supports academic drones by the thousands and lets down students by the millions?

Those who fight for position in any academic hierarchy are not teachers. Teachers do not fight for position -- they are too busy trying to reach students. Teachers remain at the bottom of the preferment heap until forced to retire, or until they become the walking academic dead -- a species well known to us all.

I was fortunate enough to benefit many times over from the creative fire of the true teacher in elementary school, high school, college, and even in graduate school, despite the disdainful medievalist to whom poetry was not something to ``teach.'' My own children were less fortunate; they had an illuminating classroom encounter less than once every eight years, and since 1970, I have met students with no such inspiring time at all.

One young man, accustomed to living in a quiet fog of retreat whenever he sat down in a classroom, was startled when I called him by name, gazed directly at him, and repeated a question aimed at him alone.

He looked all around. ``You'e talking to me?'' he asked.

He did not take his eyes off me or send his head back into space for the rest of the time he spent in my class.

Halfway through the semester, he came to my office to tell me that he had to leave the college. He had no parents, and the aunt housing him could not keep him anymore; he had to move elsewhere, to another house.

``I didn't want just to disappear, and have you think I didn't like the class,'' he said. ``I'm really sorry to leave.''

Still trying to survive 17 years of being shunted about like an undeliverable parcel, he took the time to tell me that he was a student and I was a teacher.

Because of him, I am able to return to work this fall ready for both the little successes and the big flops: My students (and they are as rare as teachers) have been thoughtful enough to demonstrate to me that there really isn't any ``teaching'' at all, just people sharing the joy of learning.

Frances Deutsch Louis is associate professor of English at the City University of New York.

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