“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.”
― Thomas Merton
Merton said little about education and teaching, and this is not one of the things he said. He was speaking to those involved in the peace movement in the ’60’s and he was warning against disappointment because our goals and targets for change never seem to be reached. Yet I suggest it could apply to teachers.
Teachers strive to be transformational and often the transformation they seek is delayed, to put it mildly. How do you remain motivated, involved and focussed when the class in front of you is slipping into inertia, on the road to amnesia and a journey around some distant planet no scientist has yet discovered?
Merton suggests letting go of the destination and remembering why you are a teacher, why it is right to be teacher and why teachers are necessary.To let go of the idea of making a difference and to develop a relationship with the individuals, not the class and not the curriculum outcome.
He affirms what all good teachers know but need to be reminded of every now and then, that ‘it is the reality of the personal relationship that saves everything’, and in the case of teachers, everyone including the teacher herself.
It is interesting to note that he says we are to have that relationship with specific persons, not everyone. How does that work? I suggest that in every class there are leaders, significant influencers whose ‘buy-in’ is required to move the whole class. Students who wield influence, are early adopters, who lead by achievement, it is these students we are to identify and to develop the particular relationship aimed at helping them achieve their goals, whether that be learning, prestige, success and/or the need for a relationship with teacher, students or parents.
Is this easy? No but perhaps it is the difference between burning out and remaining what you already are, a great teacher.