Vulnerable Aliveness

My dad’s new superintendent sent this out to her staff members. He passed it on to me. I’m passing it on to you.

I read the following excerpt this morning in an essay entitled “The Wizard in the Closet.” Written by Heather Sellers, this piece was published in The Sun, an independent literary magazine that an English teacher introduced to me about five years ago. Heather is a fiction writer and professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In this essay, she is talking about the teaching of writing, and she is remembering a college professor named Jerry Stern and his influence and contribution to who she is today. The image she creates, though, of teachers sending kids off on errands and asking them what they noticed and what was important seems to transcend grade levels.

I was a C student and not much of a reader. This is what we forget as teachers: how close the poor student often is to doing good work, how great the distance feels to her between who she is and who she could be. We forget how painful it is to be between selves; how all of us, always, are between selves, and that it is in that desolate gap that everything true and useful is happening. The trick for the writer – and the teacher, and the person in-the-making – is to stay aware of the gap and to write from, to teach from, and to be from the other side, the better side.

We teachers forget that we are intimidating to our students. We forget to invite them into the room with us, into the process of authoring everything, because they dare not come in without an invitation. We forget to send them on errands; it’s easier to do things ourselves. We forget to ask them again and again, ‘What happened? What did you notice? What did you see that was new?’ We forget teaching is the process of showing others how to shape chaos into something you can carry around, a story you can tell, a thing that makes sense.

The art of teaching involves staying curious, darting about the edges of your students’ sentences, waiting for an opening, a sign of vulnerable aliveness. It’s hard to remain patient, as Jerry always was, waiting for a glimpse of that self that wants to burst out. It’s so easy to go on and on and on, telling them everything you know. It feels like teaching, but it’s not. Teaching is giving errands. Teaching is letting the student write the story. Teaching is asking the questions that surprise both of you.

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