on teachers & teaching & bigger hearts

Last week we had Teachers’ Day here in Turkey and I saw several postings on Facebook and Instagram acknowledging that and basically in praise of the profession and those who work at it. One cartoon in particular made me pause, not because of what it said exactly or because of who posted it (a teacher I know personally to be one of the most committed and talented ones I had the privilege of working with) but because of what it implied: that teachers have bigger hearts than normal.

Now I know I risk offending those who might read this and are teachers at some level of instruction at a primary school, secondary school, college, or university, just as I myself taught both high school and college/university, and though many of you might indeed have hearts bigger than average (like that teacher I know who posted that cartoon), I have to say that from my personal experience of over 30 years in education, not just as a teacher but as someone who created language programs and administered them, I found that teachers were not necessarily teaching because of their commitment to education or because of their desire to help educate the masses, but were in many cases there for reasons other than altruism. As one high school teacher told me early in my career, “I teach for three reasons: June, July, and August.”

Now granted vacations and flexible working hours, and this mainly applies to teachers in the US and in some cases in other countries, are attractive, especially considering that teachers don’t always make as much money as people in say private industry or other professions like doctors, lawyers, and accountants (though, of course, not all of them make extravagant salaries and also most endure extreme stress that teachers are generally free from), but those vacations certainly do give one something to look forward to. And, of course, many teachers do take work home after hours so those flexible working hours aren’t always as flexible as they appear.

But I’m not comparing working conditions here, just the size of hearts. For what that cartoon implied was that teachers have bigger hearts than normal, that is than most other people, and thus that translates to more compassionate, more caring, and kinder than others. And here is where I beg to differ because one thing those 30 odd years in education taught me was that teachers, and by extension administrators at schools, were not uniformly endowed with bigger hearts at all.

Now I have, as I like to say, had a rather eventful past and have done many things in my life, worked at several different occupations and often in a managerial capacity so my experience has been not only in the trenches, so to speak, but supervising others in the same field so I have a view of things beyond the actual job. What happens with many people who have only worked in one capacity in one type of job all their adult lives is that they develop a narrower view of their occupation based on their own experiences and those of the colleagues they have associated with. But I encountered many teachers who would schedule advising hours when they knew students were least likely to come, avoid committee work unless it was necessary for promotion, taught from the same syllabus year after year without change, did not seek ways for professional development, spoke disparaging of students based on race, religion, ethnic background, or gender, were more interested in the gossip of the workplace or of their students’ lives and picking apart colleagues than they were in empowering those in their classrooms.

I could give numerous examples but I think any teacher reading this can fill in with examples of their own if they just thought about it and honestly assessed colleagues either past or present they have worked beside. Granted, if one just concentrated on one’s own work in the classroom, and if one was as dedicated as say the teacher who posted the cartoon, then one might be apt to generalize, but generalizations lead to stereotypes which ultimately run the risk of bordering on bias and prejudice.

I certainly do not intend to “blow my own horn” because that is not necessary. I know what I have done both in and outside of the classroom, the effect I have had on many throughout my career, especially in the US where one could exercise academic freedom, and not just in education but in other occupations I worked at as well. This is not about me but about what determines the size of one’s heart and just who in life is a candidate for that acknowledged honor. There is no one profession that can lay claim to that characteristic nor one set of criteria for evaluating it. Besides, the size of one’s heart is determined long before one settles into a profession. One’s upbringing, the influence of family and environment, the kinds of friends one associates with, all these factors influence whether the heart grows or shrinks, and perhaps an occupation is not picked because of it but more than likely one picks an occupation based on aptitude, not how large or small one’s heart is.

I truly wish that all teachers have bigger hearts just as I truly wish that all mechanics do not overcharge, all doctors have great bedside manner, all police do not exercise racial profiling or excessive force, all military personnel do not kill innocent children, women, and the elderly, that all customers never get tempted to switch labels, that all farmers do not produce genetically engineered food products, that the rich all pay their fair share of taxes, and poverty, racism, and sexism become obsolete words in all languages, and that all politicians do not lie. But as optimistic as I can be, history and personal experience give me little hope of seeing that in my lifetime.

But back to the cartoon. I saw compassionate hearts and kindness bestowed by many people in the medical profession, law enforcement, social services, even restaurant workers giving food to the homeless and retail managers marking down clothing for single mothers and the poor, many individuals from all walks of life volunteering their time and energy in programs like the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Boys Club, the Salvation Army, orphanages, prisons, community centers, old age homes, hospitals, rape crisis hotlines, suicide prevention programs, etc. etc. etc. Bigger hearts than normal are not exclusive to teachers nor do all teachers/educators have them. People are people: some good, some bad, some indifferent. And most, I have found, operate on the principle of self-interest. So when it is in their interests to be kind or compassionate, they usually are. But it is not so common for individuals to be compassionate and kind all the time and to all people. My mother used to say judge a person by how kind they were not just to their family and friends but to strangers and even to people they did not necessarily like. Judge them by what they do when no one is looking. Just as a really law abiding citizen stops at a traffic signal at three o’clock in the morning on a deserted street corner, a really kind person does acts of kindness even when there is no potential profit, even to their egos. We are what we do, not what we say we do. And kindness and compassion, those very virtues that signify a heart larger than average, exist in many people in many different occupations in many countries in many cultures among the various religions of the world.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what could be seen as a harmless cartoon on a day dedicated to a profession that often feels it is not rewarded enough or acknowledged enough for the good work they do in preparing the young for productive lives in the future. But unfortunately I have seen too much pettiness and jealousy in academia in both countries I’ve worked in and from what others tell me of their experiences in the field, it is not uncommon. A close friend who is a tenured professor at UCLA explained to me once that academia bred pettiness and jealousy because academics had too much time on their hands, which, of course, explains why an assistant director at a Turkish college told me it was necessary to keep teachers busy at all times or else they would just gossip over tea. And pettiness and jealousy are not signs of a bigger heart than normal. They are signs, though, of small minds, selfish people, self-centered individuals. Which brings me back to the main point: only people who do not act with regard to self-interest but are truly other-centered in whatever occupation they dedicate themselves to have bigger hearts indeed. This has been true throughout all history. As George Washington once said: “The motives which predominate most human affairs are self-love and self-interest.”

And if that is true, that self-love and self-interest guide the actions of most people, then only those who can somehow rise above both those motives clearly illustrate what it means to have a bigger heart regardless of what profession they are drawn to. A principle, I might add, found in all major religions but not always followed by those professing to be religious. One only has to look at the state of the world to see that. And educators and religious leaders, unfortunately, who we have charged with ensuring that have had little impact on changing what seems to be basic human behavior. Bigger hearts are truly needed in us all.


from Stoner by John Williams

He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance. And the consciousness of his inadequacy distressed him so greatly that the sense of it grew habitual, as much a part of him as the stoop of his shoulders.

But during the weeks that Edith was in St Louis, when he lectured, he now and then found himself so lost in his subject that he became forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself, and even of the students before him. Now and then he became so caught by his enthusiasm that he stuttered, gesticulated, and ignored the lecture notes that usually guided his talks. At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as if he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of a tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print–the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.