Most of us who got into teaching believe in the passion and power of a classroom to inspire change in our students, in our society, in our world. And yet somewhere along the line, whether because of bureaucratic pressures of working within an educational institution or because of the sheer demands of life, we may have found ourselves having lost touch with this higher purpose, and wish to get back to it.
Maybe we feel stuck and don’t quite know how to reconnect.
Losing Touch With Our Higher Purpose
I felt this way in the spring of 2009. My literature classroom felt dull and lifeless. I’d grown so tired of teaching, and doubtful about my ability to do it well, that I was on the verge of leaving academia.
And then, out of nowhere, life intervened: I was invited to teach a workshop in a Virginia Beach prison on Tolstoy’s famous novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about a middle-aged nineteenth-century Russian judge who now has some mysterious fatal illness and must come to terms with how he’s lived his life.
During that intensely personal and alive hour-and-a-half discussion with inmates at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center, I pondered with the question of how I wanted to live my life moving forward as a teacher. Sitting there with this group of orange-jumpsuit-clad incarcerated men who were sharing stories about their own confrontations with death, about people they’d watched died, about mistakes they’d made in life, I suddenly remembered what an inspirational place a classroom can be.
I felt the passion, the fire, I’d once known for my subject that the incessant practical burdens of life and work had snuffed out.
And I saw what my teaching could become once again if I had the courage to take a risk and connect my classroom with something bigger, with the wider world and a higher social purpose.
The class that day at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center inspired me to create Books Behind Bars, an undergraduate course in which my University of Virginia students would meet regularly with incarcerated youth at a juvenile correctional center to discuss questions of meaning, value, and purpose through the lens of Russian literature.
Launched in 2010, this class not only revived me as a teacher, but it gave me the opportunity to help my own students connect their own learning to a higher purpose of social justice, lending authenticity and motivation to their work that I’ve never experienced in any other class before.
What happened to me in 2009 was an example of the universe’s power of synchronicity. The perspective-altering experience I needed the most, yet expected the least, is precisely what the universe mysteriously delivered.
But for those teachers who may be struggling right now, as I once was, and for whom synchronicity might not appear to be doing its magical work quickly enough, I’d like to offer some advice on how to jumpstart the process.
How to Reconnect with Your Passion
Your job is to remain focused on students’ learning, after all, right? Which is exactly why it is essential that you refuel your own tank. How can you light the fires of passion inside your students if you yourself are feeling dead inside? Not that you need to know exactly the one thing that excites you above all else—we can have more than one love—but you should begin the process.
Think of this as the teacher’s version of the security rule we’ve all heard on airplanes before take-off: Put on your oxygen mask first before attempting to put on your child’s. If you as a teacher are oxygen-starved, you won’t be able to breathe life into your oxygen-starved students.
To get started, recall a moment when you were a student and found yourself utterly fascinated by the subject you now teach. Recreate that moment in the present tense, as if you were that 18- or 19- or 20-year old student fired up by something that just happened in a chemistry class, or an encounter with a book, or a tour of a natural history museum.
Close your eyes and imagine your responses to these questions, or if you prefer, write them down in a journal:
- Where are you?
- What do you see, hear, smell in your physical environment?
- What are you feeling inside?
- What did you just hear or see or do to give you that special feeling?
- What fascinates you, intrigues you, unnerves you?
- What did you just see or hear that is having this impact on you?
Alternatively, if you’re having difficulty returning to your earlier self-as-student, then imagine or write out your answer to these questions:
- What was a star moment in your recent or even distant past?—a moment when you felt particularly alive, in flow, and engaged in something that you enjoyed deeply and did well.
- Again, try to recall this moment in the present tense. Recreate it with as much detail as possible. Relieve it in the now, and let those feelings wash over you.
Don’t worry if you don’t immediately reconnect with these passions. Re-igniting fires can take a while, but rest assured that if you experienced a passion for something once, you’ll be able to experience it again.
Emotional memory is a powerful thing. You can’t unfeel something you’ve felt before.