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The poet W. H. Auden once said, “A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep,” but I have a special appreciation for teachers because both my father and my mother-in-law taught. I have also had the good fortune to teach for the past 26 years. As an English Professor at Saddleback College in Orange County, CA, I work with young undergraduates, students who were unable to graduate from high school, and returning adults hoping to reinvent themselves. Like every teacher, I hope to inspire students to find out what they can do, to develop themselves, and to advance to their fullest potential.
One of my former students, Nick, worked as a maintenance man. He came back to school because, at age 27, he realized he wanted more from life. He planned on becoming an environmental engineer, and I am certain he will accomplish this goal. He realized that he needed more education to make a major change in his life and prospects, and as a teacher, I am blessed to help him make this change.
Each of us, as we look back over our lives, can probably think of a special teacher who was instrumental in shaping our intellectual and professional lives. I went to a private school in the center of London, England and one year I had a young, hip and friendly high school teacher — quite different from the usual tough old schoolmasters, who seemed like leftovers from another century. I remember he asked each of us to write a biographical essay, and for some reason I decided to write about Jimi Hendrix. (My brother was a huge fan at the time.) This terrific teacher got me more excited about writing than any other teacher ever had before. Over thirty years later, I am a teacher of writing myself — and my students write insightful, compassionate papers on topics as diverse as child marriage, disabled children, the homeless mentally ill, and women’s rights around the world. I suspect my old high school teacher would be smiling today if he could see my students’ lively and interesting work.
Teachers know that education powerfully transforms people; that it can make the difference between hopelessness and hope, between poverty and prosperity, and between a life of superficial pleasures and a meaningful, fulfilling life of gratification. Studies show, for example, that children who can’t read beyond a fourth grade level are much more likely to become involved in criminal activities than those with higher reading levels. On the other hand, higher levels of education correlate with increased volunteerism and service. Education boosts volunteerism because it raises consciousness about problems, increases empathy, and builds self-confidence. In short, education is good for our children, good for our communities, and good for the world.
Many societies around the world, however, grossly undervalue teachers. We overwork and underpay them, give them class sizes far too large, place impossible demands on them to meet unfunded bureaucratic mandates, and cut their school’s budgets regardless of the results. Even in today’s difficult economy, we seem to have infinite amounts of money for prisons and the military — but the education of children in many cultures has become an ever-decreasing priority.
This all happens despite the paramount importance of education. The Teachings of the Baha’i Faith characterize
“the education and training of children” as “among the greatest services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God.” – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 133.
Baha’u’llah, the prophet-Founder of the Baha’i Faith, calls on humanity to:
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value…. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 162
The role of educators, then, involves helping students understand their potential as treasure troves of hidden gems. Those God-given gifts and intellectual and moral capacities can benefit humankind once they’re discovered, recognized and properly cultivated by caring teachers.
In addition to their knowledge and professional expertise, great teachers also show genuine respect and enthusiasm for their students, awakening their hearts through warmth and compassion. The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung wrote that “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.” The best teachers enlighten their students precisely because they combine professional expertise, the ability to awaken intellectual curiosity, and a special warmth that can edify and nurture the soul of a child or adult learner.
Let’s make sure, then, that we recognize the sacrificial efforts of teachers on behalf of our children and show them our gratitude. They’re unearthing the gems of the future and doing God’s work.