Teaching is poetry.
It’s the creation of something deeper, something sleeping below a classroom structure. Its meaning is buried underneath flash cards and Power Points, grade checks and rubrics. The surface seems simple and direct — we see the quizzes and cold-calls as clearly as pure rhymes. The bells ring and the lines break and we prepare for the next stanza to take a seat quietly and get to work.
But hanging underneath is something deeper, something unique, something pure to the individual.
Teaching breathes and stretches and transcends like poetry. No two learners can interpret the verse of teaching the same, just as no two teachers can write the same verse. No matter what the rhyme scheme or theme, it is the process of learning that makes education poetry. It is the delicate and personal interaction between two humans sharing a space in mind and body and trying to transfer meaning to one another.
And, no matter how hard we try to break education down into replicating patterns and structure, it always breaks lose. We know better. We know that not every class can be a haiku, not every lesson fits in pentameter, and, damn it, we know that some kids are best off as slant rhymes. We know this because we are artists.
We alliterate universal ideas, building in repetition until our students sing out life lessons. We labor and toil over the most minuscule decisions of lesson structure so that our students can focus on the content and not the form. We put our hearts into words knowing that the interpretation matters more than the intention.
While the other mediums get the glory — the movies make millions, the dime novels turn pages without controversy, and the video games don’t stress about year-after-year of mandated regulation — we go on making poetry. Even as critics sing out that “poetry is dead” we listen to their song knowing that they couldn’t have carried a tune without us. We are poets because poetry is learning and learning is our calling.
The lesson lives so long as the lines resonate at the soul of the learner. He or she may not remember every word, every sound but the feeling of the poem never ends.
We teach to touch minds. We teach to touch hearts. We are poets.
Recently, a colleague in education gave me the book Teaching with Heart, by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner. Of course I was curious since I love poetry, I love teaching, and I love reading, so my inner-nerd was ready to gorge on a knowledge buffet. The insight from the book, though, went deeper than knowledge. It went deeper than “Understanding” or “Analysis” or anything else that can be thrown on good ol’ Bloom’s chart. Teaching with Heart reminded me why there is something deep about teaching that no data, no class, no observation can show. Teaching is poetic and deserves a muted sense of awe just as soul-sparking as the poems contained within this collection.
Curious about the book? Here’s the Sparknotes overview: Ninety teachers from all levels and locations share the poems that have (and continue to) change their lives in education. Each poem accompanies a discussion of the influence on that educator.
However, Sparknotes without the actual reading is like a recipe without the actual cooking. So it’s time to bust out the cutting board.
Here’s a taste:“I keep on dying, Because I love to live.”
from “The Lesson” by Maya Angelou
We could just let those two lines rest on a branch and allow you to ponder, question, climb, and harvest the ideas for days. But, there’s something grand in seeing how other teachers work the fruit of great poetry. Jovan Miles, the Atlanta-based educator who chose this poem, writes,
“Teaching became my life. It consumed me, and I struggled . . . I chose my battles poorly and lost far more often than I won. I hated how my struggles made me feel, but I endured knowing I could, and would, become a better teacher . . . In my first year, I died many times in front of my class. the last lines explain why I keep on teaching: ‘I keep dying,/because I love to live.’ I love to live, and to teach.”
I wanted to book a flight to Atlanta just to high-five Jovan after I read those lines, thinking of my own past and continuing frustrations with the learning process that is teaching. Maybe teaching is sadistic. Or, maybe it’s an understanding that we wouldn’t toil through the challenge of teaching if there weren’t a larger purpose. Maya’s poem, along with Jovan’s reflection, bring a familiar, pleasant, and distant warmth to the frigid feelings we find in struggling.
Then there’s this morsel:If I can stop one Heart from breaking I shall not live in vain If I can ease one Life the Aching Or cool one Pain Or help one fainting Robin Unto his Nest again I shall not live in vain.
— Emily Dickinson
In reflecting upon the poem, Annette Breaux describes a specific moment when these lines inspired an assignment for students to “Do something nice for someone.” She writes, “A beautiful poem led to a homework assignment, which led to a child’s good deed, which led to his mother’s hugs (desperately needed), which initiated the start of a healthier relationship between mother and child. The poem still sits on my desk, but Thomas etched it on my heart.”
There is something deeper in the relationship among poet, poem, teacher, lesson, student and parent. It’s as if all six are breathing and living together, influencing one another in subtle, exponential ways. We will never see the true depth or influence of their interaction — just as we will never know Dickinson’s true intention — but we are left knowing that something meaningful is at the heart of their process of teaching and learning together. Who was truly the teacher or the student? Who was truly the poet or the reader?
With 88+ more poems, I’ll spare you my thoughts and let you form your own on the rest (Huzzah for summer reading!). In the end, I am thankful for yet another resource that brought me both to earth and the clouds about the purpose of teaching and learning. Teaching with Heart strummed a complex chord of teaching in a way that my usual stockpile of research and pedagogical reads can’t do. It resonated with that hidden but present purpose of why teaching is worth every calorie of energy.
As the academic year draws to a close, we find ourselves in that reflective state of curiosity about what was the meaning behind all of it — the teaching, the lessons, the struggle, the joy. So, rather than trying to analyze every line we’ve written and process every syllable of data, it may be worth sitting back, smiling at the poetry of teaching, and knowing that the meaning is deeper than we may ever know. Because, the true meaning lies in the heart of the reader: the student. Set down the pen. Go for a walk. And be happy knowing that this year’s poem has been written and that the meaning will forever be in process.