In 1987 I taught several week-long humane education courses to twelve-year-olds in a summer program offered at the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve spoken about the experience of watching those kids turn into activists overnight through in my TEDx talk, “The World Becomes What You Teach,” but what I haven’t spoken about very often is the long-term impact of something as seemingly fleeting as a middle schooler’s summer course experience.
Twenty-two years after teaching that first course, I invited one of those students, now an HIV/AIDS activist working for the mayor of New York City, to come to a talk I was giving in Manhattan. I hadn’t seen him in 18 years, and now the boy I remembered was a 35-year-old man. After the talk I introduced him to friends explaining that he was in the first humane education course I ever taught, and before I could even finish my sentence he interjected, “That course changed my life!”
During the many years I’ve been a humane educator, teaching about the interconnected issues of human rights, environmental preservation and animal protection in an effort to inspire solutionaries for a better world (and now through my work training others through the Institute for Humane Education’s, www.HumaneEducation.org graduate programs, online courses, workshops and resources), I’ve received many letters from students saying the week-long course they took “will stay with me for a lifetime” and “was the most inspiring five days of my life.” But it’s not simply week-long courses. Many times, even a single 45-minute presentation has stuck. I’ve run into several teenagers who’ve told me they remember a specific activity we did or something they learned from one brief visit to their classroom years earlier.
All this is to say that teachers have a profound, life-long influence on their students even through the briefest of interactions. Virtually all of us have memories of a teacher who changed our lives. And since teachers are generally with their students not for 45 minutes or a week, but an entire year or more, that impact could (and should) be tremendous. Which means that teaching may carry both the greatest opportunity and the gravest responsibility of any profession.
There's a couplet by Rudyard Kipling that shines a sometimes too bright light on one of the biggest truths we educators must confront.
No printed word, nor spoken plea can teach young minds what they should be.
Not all the books on all the shelves – but what the teachers are themselves.
The reason why Kipling’s couplet sometimes feels too bright to me is because, too often, I fail to heed it. This is true of other educators as well. We fail our students not just when they haven’t learned what we intended to teach them, not only when we haven’t inspired the best in them and turned those light bulbs on in their eager-to-learn minds, but also when we are not the best role models for them: when we are bored, boring, or disengaged; when we are judgmental; when we listen poorly; when we do shoddy work; when we suspend our own best critical thinking; when we are lazy; when we are reactive; when we not as kind as we should have been; when we stop persevering in our own pursuit of knowledge, even when we fail to care for our bodies through good diets and exercise and thereby fail to model health and vitality.
There are few professions in which being a truly great human being and embodying the best qualities of humanity – compassion, wisdom, kindness, curiosity, generosity, courage, perseverance, and so on – is part of the job description, but teaching is one of them. Despite this call to near sainthood, teaching conveys little status and only a modest salary. And in today’s climate, it is often a thankless job requiring teaching to standardized tests in overcrowded classrooms with little room for flexibility, creativity, and innovation (all qualities that should be modeled for our children but which are being crushed by standardization).
And yet, what greater calling is there? What is more noble than this: the opportunity to make a profound, positive difference by educating the next generation in such a way that they have the embodied the best qualities of human beings and have the passion and knowledge to use their hearts, minds, and hands in their own pursuit of the unfolding of a world that is more peaceful, just, and humane through whatever professions they pursue?
We make this difference as educators each day, as long as we remember that our job goes far beyond the curricula we intend to impart. We have the capacity and the responsibility to awaken in our students their own desire to pursue goodness and greatness. While potentially daunting, while occasionally “too bright” a light on our single life, it is also the most profound opportunity we have to make of our one life such an impact; to live with such meaning; to fulfill the greatest goals we may have for ourselves, and to know that we are living our lives as richly, deeply and well as we can.