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Heroes give gifts

The story about Sarah inadvertantly illustrates another reason the large official attempts to reform education ring hollow and leave us uninspired: those of us who’ve been around Sarah a little know she illustrates the heroic spirit that it takes to teach well, as do all of you who make the heritage project work.

Beyond a certain point, usually reached by second or third period on an average day, to teach well requires generosity. Teachers need generosity and a heroic spirit much more than they need another training workshop or another evaluation protocol. The energy it takes to listen with an attentive being to all those students, to take extra care in responding to an assignment, to prepare as well as time permits for far too many classes--that energy isn’t free. It is given at a cost. It requires the sacrifice of more selfish activities, and it is a gift.

Psychologist Ernest Becker in his profound book, the Denial of Death, notes that “if you are going to be a hero, then you must give a gift. . .the only way out of human conflict is full renunciation, to give one’s life as a gift to the highest powers” (p. 173).

I think all good teachers understand this. There’s always an element of heroism--of selfless giving--in great teaching.

The industry that has sprung up dedicated to satisfying the NCLB requirement that all students have well-qualified teachers seems far, far away from all this. Who believes all the lists of credits accumulated or courses completed or certificates collected get to the heart of the matter? Who believes the processes are well-motivated and developed with the best of intentions?

Teachers who give gifts of service to young people--beyond what could be required by contracts or bosses--are best qualified to teach students why they should sacrifice to create gifts of scholarship for elders and families and communities. The best reason for such work is not that it qualifies students for good colleges or looks good on scholarship applications. The best reason is because in putting their time and talent in service to the society in which they live, young people learn that to be heroic is to do something that endures, and that what endures is not the act itself but the meaning, which can make an act worthy of being remembered. They learn that their heroic impulses are not foolish--that only in acts of heroism and service do they find peace and fulfillment.

I’ve always liked the fact that the Project was initiated as a gift from Art Ortenberg and Liz Claiborne to the students and teachers in Montana, and that it sustained itself by creating an economy of gifts: teachers and mentors giving to young people, young people giving to their communities and elders. The Heritage Project is about making and remembering heroic gifts, which are all around us when we are awake to them.

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 11/13 at 06:31 PM






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