Certainty based on something I don’t understand
For a long time I have known that I wouldn’t draw the same satisfaction out of teaching if I didn’t work at a Quaker school. But I haven’t been sure why. I have come close to putting my finger on why a few times, but it was only this year that my reflections on teaching have helped me see more clearly why I feel committed to the vision of a school based on Quaker values.
There it is. “Based on Quaker values.” The prompt itself seems problematic. That line is part of what makes putting my finger on why even more challenging. What are Quaker values? How do they influence a school from the Board to the students?
Let’s write it down
Answers come and go. Sure, “Quaker values” can be delineated: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, Stewardship. But everything beyond that (and that includes a lot) seems fleeting. Quakerism is a non-creedal religion, and in my moments of frustration — aren’t atheistic Quakers a contradiction in terms? is it fair to say that Quakerism is a philosophy as much as it is a religion? — I return to the lack of a creed. Maybe it is just my perspective as a Latin and Computer Science teacher that has me hung up on documentation, but for a long time I have been hungering for something more about what “Quaker values” really means. And I want it in writing so that we can agree or disagree, dialogue, and grow.
So here is my own attempt: the magic of investing my professional life in a Quaker school stems from the fact that we are an institution rooted in faith.
Oh, you’re still reading?
That’s typically enough to lose half of a reading audience right there. Faith. A word with incredible personal and cultural baggage for so many of us. But this year my understanding of faith has evolved through successes, perceived failures, conversations, and lots of reflection. And I think the fact that ours is a community rooted in faith is what makes it special. Allow me to try to offer a definition of faith by telling a story.
This past summer I heard a sermon at my church about faith. It stuck with me because, as I recalled it, the sermon discussed the definition and the implications of faith without using religious language. Instead, my memory of the sermon defined faith as the ability to treat the future with the same sense of reality as we do the present. This message lingered in part because I loved the idea, in part because I didn’t quite understand it, and in part because I was surprised by a sermon that defined such an important religious concept using the language of chronology instead of the language of theology. I eventually came to understand the idea more clearly through my teaching this winter.
Laughing at a student in crisis
This winter I challenged my Advanced Latin Literature students to write weekly essays that analyzed the ancient poetry we were reading in class. Each week I gave a new prompt on a new poem, and each week I gave feedback using the same rubric. I offered no letter grades and I encouraged revisions until each essay had full marks in the “Don’t change a thing” column. I was astounded by the sustained commitment I saw in each of the students. It was a great learning process, but it was exhausting. And at first, it was daunting.
One day in December, one of my Latin students approached me in tears after getting feedback on her first essay. We met twice that day to discuss her essay and to make improvements, and by lunchtime the student was beginning to catch her breath. As she was regaining her confidence and sorting out how to approach her second draft, she confessed that she didn’t think she would be able to write an essay worthy of better marks on her own. I laughed.
Wearing sandals in December
My laughter surprised both of us. I didn’t want a student, clearly in a vulnerable moment, to think that I was laughing at her, so I tried to explain it: “Here we are sharing a conversation,” I said, “but we are months apart. You are anxious and teary-eyed in cold December. And somehow I can feel the warm sunshine on my face, with spring break just around the corner, and we are celebrating the great work you did this trimester.” In the moment it felt like time travel. But in retrospect it felt like faith. Somehow my laughter, which was completely accidental, led me to understand the definition I had heard earlier in church. I had such clear confidence in her ability that I dismissed her tears as short-sightedness. The reality of the future that I saw was just as real as the present she was experiencing.
I spent time through the rest of the winter looking for similar cues. When was I in a place to show my students that I believed in them (whether it was in my classroom or beyond)? Was that belief general optimism? Or was my belief grounded in the kind of faith that feels like sandals in December? I have been closely watching my mentors, many of whom were my teachers, and I wonder if this might be the thing that makes working at a Quaker school different.
Where does this go next?
I think at some point it is important to unpack this concept of faith by trying to trace its origins. But I think that part of the conversation necessarily becomes theological, and I’m not sure if a blog post is the right format for that.
And I think it’s also important to see what happens when we share this perspective with students. Last week I checked in with the teary-eyed student from December, and we high-fived and celebrated her accomplishments in mid-March. We revisited that initial conversation and the growth that followed, and we talked briefly about my reaction of laughter.
A few days later she had started a blog of her own and not only had she written articulately about her experience growing as a student, but she even examined a few specific ways she hoped to improve her teaching as a Hebrew school teacher with her new perspective on laughter and faith.
What a journey teaching is! And what a precious thing it is to teach at a Quaker school. I’m not sure I could teach anywhere else.