Teachers don’t typically rely on pop tunes for advice, at least not Neil Diamond. This, however, might be an exception, especially if you’re having a particularly hard day. Generally, teaching is a tightly choreographed dance in which there are few surprises. Good teachers, like good actors, want their steps to appear as natural as possible, as if they were invented on the spot. Most of the time they’re not. Planned spontaneity is an old and very effective teaching strategy. When asked what the secret was to good acting, Spencer Tracy quipped, “Never let them catch you doing it.” However, even the most watertight lesson plans, like everything else in the universe, tend to obey the fundamental rules of physics, particularly the second law of thermodynamics—things fall apart. That includes your well-rehearsed lesson on the pyramids.
Most teachers know that lesson plans are subject to human and sometimes nonhuman interruption, but that does not make it any easier to cope. The fluctuating moods of teachers and students, pep rallies, tax returns, shaky relationships, and lockdowns are just a few of the disturbances that can wreck our best ideas and slickest moves. The shocking revelation for most of us is that there are real human beings on both sides of the teacher’s desk, all of whom are subject to a variety of “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” When the inevitable happens, some teachers dissolve like ice cream in August, disappointed “that this too too solid flesh would melt.” The short simple answer may be Don Henley’s advice, “Get over it!”As two other American philosophers, Dixon and Denson, wrote (and The Shirelles interpreted), our mothers warned us that there would be days like this. But as you might suspect, there’s a longer version that’s much more complicated.
New teachers are often told to be firm, fair, and consistent, perhaps good advice when the waters are calm. However, when the sea gets choppy and your lesson plan begins to take on water, you may need a life preserver filled with more than hot air and platitudes. Maybe it’s time to rethink this advice. I question whether or not this advice is viable in any condition. I’m not as sure about the issue of firmness, but I think the other two are suspect. Most of us desperately want to be fair and consistent, but we simply can’t. As the haunting pictures of children caught in the Ebola crisis has shown us, life is certainly not fair. Consistency is just as elusive. T. S. Eliot reminded us, “There is but one still point in the turning world.” It’s not me, and I suffer no illusions about any of you.
The truth is, like the music behind the delicate dance between teachers and students, life is a series of waves—highs and lows, peaks and valleys. The syncopated rhythm of those crests and falls is what we dance to. Those rhythms are how we see our world, and write our poetry, and teach our classes. Because we are alive, we—all of us—oscillate. The beautiful rhythms in the waves of our hearts and brains are clear and unmistakable indicators of life. If the EKG and EEG line is flat, you’re having a really bad day. Go back to bed.