I really was quite stunned by the question the parent asked me in polite dinner conversation a few years ago: “So what are you working on?” I looked at her and hesitated. Did she mean the lesson plan on the Punic Wars I was revising? Did she mean the unfinished grading that lay at home? Was she really interested in where I was in revising my AP World History syllabus to pass the Audit? I really was not sure if she was querying me on my work at school as the teacher of her son or if she was truly interested in the other parts of my professional and intellectual life.
Having worked at a boarding school for twenty years, I can say with authority that the pace of the work week at such a school is very challenging and exhausting. I can recall a number of sixteen-hour days: academics, bus ride, sport event, another bus ride, chaperoning. When school is in session, it is certainly difficult to find time to do anything but school-related activities. However, it is exceptionally important that an educator stay in touch with the wider world and possess outside interests, activities, and—most important—passions.
First, by keeping abreast of what is happening in the outside world, the teacher can make the lessons more current and relevant to the students. As a history teacher, this is especially important. For example, in discussing terrorism today, I used a recent article on a policy statement by President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, to address the question of violating another country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty to capture or kill a terrorist. While staying current on the news is very important and useful to a teacher of the humanities, I would argue it is nonetheless important also for teachers in other disciplines to remain current. Not doing so may result in missed opportunities for reinforcing points in the day’s lesson.
Second, I think it is important to demonstrate to students that a teacher is not a one dimensional person. A teacher is a real person with many different dimensions. In my case, I as a teenager certainly viewed my teachers as a type of living being apart from normal humans, in a separate and somewhat unique category.
Third, while I want them to remember the similarities between the Western knight and the Japanese samurai, I am much more interested in showing them what it is like to be truly passionate—about such things as learning, sharing a sense of responsibility for their communities, and excellence on the sports field. In my experience, Mr. Barakat, a high school history teacher and coach, not only showed his love of European History, but—more so for me—his passion for basketball. After we lost a game by not listening to his instructions, he fulminated in the lock room, banging the metal wall lockers and screaming until another coach restrained him. One might conclude that he was a lunatic; what I drew from this incident was that basketball was not just a little game to him. He had real passion for it.
As it turned out, the inquiring parent was indeed interested in what I was doing outside of school. This was truly a refreshing question, and once I realized her intent, I was flattered and somewhat flabbergasted she actually asked me. Not only parents, but also headmasters and other senior administrators must ask these type questions of the faculty. And they must be genuinely interested in the answers and be ready to offer assistance, if need be, to help the teacher achieve goals beyond delivering the mission of the school. To the extent that a teacher, feeding some passion outside of school, is growing personally and professionally, it is fair to say he/she will be better able to deliver the mission in the fullest sense.