On Faith: Reflections on years of teaching

Teaching is a profoundly ethical and spiritual activity that demands courage and unflagging dedication. It affects the minds and spirits of students from pre-K through grad school in a transformative manner.

As I reflect on my own life of teaching and that of countless colleagues, including several members of my immediate family, I am intensely aware of teaching's priceless value as well as the responsibilities it entails.

In January, I began my 46th year of college teaching, 27 of them at Cal State Fullerton. I am also tutoring second-graders for an hour a week at Rea Elementary School in Costa Mesa, and did some substitute teaching at the high school level while in grad school.

What amazes me in all these teaching experiences is the way young people listen and watch you. The bulk of their seeing and hearing involves subject matter, of course, but students are also aware of how you speak to them, and they watch your body language: Is there patience, compassion or even humor in your voice, or curtness and edginess?

Do you smile easily? Do you exude enthusiasm? Do you stay cool when technology problems inevitably arise? In short, you have the daunting responsibility of teaching ethics by example every day.

Confucius, in his philosophical writings, stresses the power of moral example by elders and political leaders as indispensable to a harmonious society. The same kind of moral leadership helps produces a harmonious classroom.

Teachers need to strive for fairness to all of their students — in grading, discipline, and the granting of privileges. They need to be candid and honest — if you misspeak on a factual issue, correct the error in the next class. Teachers need to be respectful, even when a child still doesn't get it after you've explained a point repeatedly.

Above all, teachers need courage. It takes courage — whether in a grade school or college class — to be consistently upbeat and inspired. It takes courage to keep up with the latest research in one's field and then find creative and inspiring ways to present the material in class.

It takes courage to deal with the sometimes unrealistic standards set by No Child Left Behind federal legislation.

It takes courage to face an elementary school class with a wide variety of skill levels, and ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and reach all the kids.

It takes courage to work with a troubled child from a troubled home.

It takes courage — especially for administrators — to deal with irate parents with unrealistic expectations of what the school should do for an intellectually challenged child.

Whenever I speak to family members and friends teaching at the K-12 level, I try to thank them for the simultaneously joyous and difficult work of preparing young people for college.

Teaching is a noble vocation but often disparaged.

It is of priceless worth to the children who are learning so much, but with modest remuneration. It is a laboratory for teaching ethics through the power of the teacher's moral example, but seldom recognized as such.

Don't simply thank teachers; respect them, support them, and stand in awe of their contributions to the shaping of an ethical society.

BENJAMIN J. HUBBARD is professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton. He lives in Costa Mesa.

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