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.
Mahatma Gandhi said something similar when asked by a reporter, “What is your message?” and he replied that his life was his message.
And my wise friend and the director of the Institute for Humane Education’s graduate programs, Mary Pat Champeau, has always reminded me that in our role as parents, nothing matters more than modeling the behaviors we hope to cultivate in our children. (In other words, we must not yell at our children to stop yelling.)
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, 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 fail to care for our bodies through good diets and exercise; 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 are not as kind as we should have been; when we stop persevering in our own pursuit of knowledge.
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 in the world by educating the next generation in such a way that they have 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 greatest opportunity we ourselves 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.
Zoe Weil is the president of the Institute for Humane Education, which offers the only graduate programs in comprehensive humane education. She is the author of Nautilus silver medal winner Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life; Above All, Be Kind; The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and Moonbeam gold medal winner Claude and Medea, about middle school students who become activists and rescue dogs from an evil vivisector. She has given a TEDx talk on humane education and blogs. Join her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter at ZoeWeil.
Gamma Man via Creative Commons.