If he thought being a prophet was a tough gig...
OK, prophet's probably still tougher. Pastor, too. But math teacher is up there.
Warning: This is probably over-synthesis on my part.
I just finished rereading Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson for a book group. (Link to Google Books, which has the first 40 pages.) It's a book about vocational holiness. For many of the teachers I know, teaching is a vocation. It's literally what we were called to do. So the book applies on that level. On another level, pastoral work and teaching have lots of connections, so it applies there. But on a metacognitive level, Mr. Peterson wrote a 200 page think aloud about how he worked his way towards living his vocationally meaningfully. He parallels this process with the book of Jonah, from the Old Testament, a story about a guy who is definitely struggling with his vocation. It's an interesting book regardless, possibly essential for Christians or Jews and maybe Muslims (Jonah is in the Qur'an), and should definitely be required reading for vocational workers.
Mr. Peterson breaks Jonah's story up into four parts.
The first is the journey to Tarshish. God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh, an ancient and future enemy of the Israelites, and he does not want to go. So he heads in the opposite direction, to a mystery destination full of romance. Mr. Peterson connects this with careerism. Before we begin, or in our fantasy moments, or before we leave to take another job, we may indulge in the fantasy of teaching. Stand and Deliver, or Glee, or a classroom full of attentive, willing students, or the couple students whose lives are turned around by our near miraculous intervention. I have those days and years, for sure. The solution to this is to stay. Teach my students that I actually have. These guys who were complete duds and still haven't read the article/done the homework/even tried it.
The second part is the storm and the belly of the whale. Jonah is asleep on the ship, despite it being in a life and death battle with a storm. Somehow, this is when jonah recovers his vocation, and he tells the sailors to throw him into the sea. This is when the big fish swallows him up. In the whale, Jonah amazingly prays a song of praise, made up completely of lines from the psalms. (Maybe a whale, maybe not, depending on your view of many things.) Waking up is seeing our students for who they are and claiming them. Mr. Peterson connects this with the need for askesis. (This is a Greek word for athletic training - cf. Wikipedia - he uses because the idea of ascetic has some really strange stuff attached to it now.)
Askesis involves finding a mentor (or mentors) and devoting yourself to training. That maintenance is the big thing. Regular participation. Peterson found he couldn't get that from the institution or the congregation, and started reading Doesteyevsky, and other classics. He makes quite a point out of not doing what the congregation asks for, as that leads to golden calf moments. (Not good, wrath of God situations.) But the worst barrier by far is ego. When I abstract teaching too much, I'm forgetting the students. If I'm thinking about teaching in the abstract, or even focusing on what I'm doing instead of what they are learning, it gets in the way of teaching. Sometimes terminally.
For me, askesis is the colleagues who challenge me, the reading I do, and, maybe, this online community. Dave and Esther seriously help me monitor and think through my practice. Reading Debbie Miller and Ellin Oliver Keene is seriously challenging. Trying to find teaching connections to other reading (hence this post!) is also helpful. And blogging and twitter... well, I think it helps against the incredibly strong pull of isolationaism that teachers face. It is so easy, on most days, to close our classroom door. Especially the weirder I get teaching. At the end of the semester, when students are working mostly independently, and I'm sitting and watching them... I get some looks.
Peterson describes that a practical askesis has a rule, or a structure, that is supported by disciplines. For him, his rule was a cycle: worship with the congregation -> praying the psalms -> individual recollected prayer -> praying the psalms -> worship with the community. It's a real question to me what a practical rule or structure would be for teachers. The workshop structure is central to my class; is it some variation of that? For him, the pslams are where you learn how to pray. Where do we learn how to teach? Maybe that's our teaching frameworks? So for me the rule could be:
The rule would be supported by teaching disciplines. What do you see as the disciplines which improve teaching practice?
The Jonah story ends open to interpretation - the Inception of its day. Will Jonah see his mistake or die from his anger in rejection of his calling? I'd love to imagine him descending back into the city, meeting his class where they are.
PS> I'm always interested in comments, but this really felt like going out on a limb for me, and I would especially be interested in if it was worth your reading or not and why.