An English teacher reflects on the value of being present

Not long ago a family friend asked me, “What is it that allows you to do what you do?” Without hesitating I told her that I felt teaching was my calling. This approach may not appeal to you, but shortly after I started working at the inner-city school where I have taught for the last ten years, I realized that my love of literature alone would not be enough to sustain me. My students struggle to maintain basic skills; sustained critical reading happens sporadically in my classroom. To prevent quitting altogether, I needed something else to keep me curious.

So I asked myself another question: “How can I help my students grow into their best selves?” I also began attending a very progressive church, which has social justice as one of its central pillars. In one sermon, the rector offered four precepts, borrowed from multiple wisdom traditions, for a path to joy. They have become my personal professional teaching standards.

I measure how successful I am against the precepts and not my students’ test scores, which remain in the regions of below basic and far below basic. I offer these ideas to you now because they allow cultivation of a very valuable tool that is at the core of good teaching. They are show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and do not hold onto results.

Showing up means you are in your classroom, prepared and ready to go before that first bell rings.

The Buddhist nun Pema Chodron suggests that looking at the sky in moments of anxiety allows us to keep our focus away from ourselves and on the world around us. More than anything such as a packaged lesson plan, or video, or treat (a.k.a. bribe) you might buy for your students, you have to work from the part of you that is as vast and generous as the sky. This sense of openness and optimism has been essential to my survival as a teacher in an overcrowded urban school, where the average reading level of my students, even the upperclassmen, is the fourth grade.

Last fall, a student named Angel carved his name into six of my computers. To use the words of my students, I tripped. I called security and three deans and Angel’s mother. I repeated the story to anyone who would listen.  Inevitably, they confirmed how right I was to demand this child be fined and expelled and sent to jail. Over time, the story got faster and faster and I added more and more detail and before I knew it, I had a libretto of a three act opera on my hands, but no solution to help this boy, who in a moment of madness made a stupid and destructive decision. Meditating on the sky helped to access my inner expansiveness so I could welcome Angel back to the classroom, where he would have fewer opportunities for mischief.

Showing up means trusting that what you have to offer is enough. When I started teaching, I convinced myself that the marketplace, real and virtual, offered the bluebird-of-happiness lesson plan or the perfect book that would entertain my students and teach them at the same time. This is a fallacy. While it is true that some materials will be more accessible to students than others, there is no perfect book, film, or lesson plan. If you bring your whole generous self to your classroom, you will become a fine teacher, but it will not happen instantly. The best way to assure becoming the teacher you hope to be is to have a mentor in your classroom to help you do it. A mentor will prove invaluable as that person can catch your behaviors and show how they are running counter to what you are trying to achieve. Once I did this, I was forced to move my concentration away from myself to my students and the millions of ways in which they were avoiding the work I was giving.

The next precept is pay attention. To pay attention you have to get out of your seat and walk among your flock. Many inexperienced teachers think that students avoid doing their work because they are bored and their material is not challenging; however, I have not observed this. Students avoid their work because they lack basic skills. Check your students’ work! This means you have to pick up what you ask them to write, read it, and correct it. If you want them to discuss something, spy on their discussions, take notes, and share your observations. Give quizzes after a lesson. When you give instructions, ask one of your students to repeat your instructions to the rest of the class. Then ask another student to say the same thing in a different way. Repeat the process.

I am embarrassed to say how often I ignored obvious errors and glaring avoidances because I was concerned about violating students’ needs for expression. To prevent that, follow the third precept, which is to tell the truth. To illustrate the third precept, I would like to tell a story.

Once, a student came to me because he was dismayed that he had failed a progress report. “Mister,” he said plaintively, “I do my work.” I said to him, “Andrew, I can say this to you because you are not overweight, but for the moment, I would like to imagine that I am your doctor, and you are my patient. You have come to me because you are not feeling well, and yes, you weigh 350 pounds. What do you expect me to say?” Andrew thought for a moment and said, “You’d tell me to lose weight.” “Right,” I said, “and if I did not I would be remiss as your physician to have ignored this fact. Since I am your teacher, I have to be honest and say that while you are handing in your work, what you are handing in looks as though someone much younger than you wrote it.” Andrew giggled and shrugged, which were typical reactions for him. We finished our conversation by agreeing on what was necessary for him to improve, but he did not follow up on what we discussed and he failed at the end of the semester.

Three years later, he has returned to my class, a junior now, and his skills are better, but Andrew has still much maturing to do. However, his presence in my classroom is a gift because he has taught me much about the fourth precept, which is not to be attached to results. The best I can do is to be fully present for each of my students, and offer what I know in an interesting way. The rest is up to my students. I have to accept the fact that they may not be ready to hear what I have to say, even if I think it is valuable.

Over the weekend I read a newspaper editorial that outlined, according to some think tank, what makes a great teacher. In short, the editorial claimed that the optimal candidate must have great intellectual prowess. The piece mentioned nothing, however, of what I have come to believe is equally important as a well-honed mind: a well-honed heart. The precepts I offer you here are leading me to that every day. The vulnerability of a well-honed heart has shown me in ways I never could have imagined the boundless capacity of others for decency and love and humor inside and outside of my classroom. I cannot think of a better way to spend a life than growing towards that sort of excellence.

I hope you have a great first year! Good luck and by all means, contact me if I can provide some assistance.

{Thomas Roddy, Jr. (External link opens in new tab or, teaches English and journalism at Manual Arts High School in South Los Angeles.  He divides his time between the classroom, kitchen, and garden — when not working on perfecting his flip turns at the Rose Bowl. This article first appeared in June 2010 in California English Volume 15, No. 5, pages 10 11. California English is a publication of the California Association of Teachers of English.}

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