People sometimes ask why I teach. Since getting my administrative job, people sometimes even ask why I’ve decided to keep teaching. My answer is simple: teaching is a creative act; it is arguably one of the most creative human acts. Amidst all of my meetings and administrative details, the highlight of my day is still when I walk into my 9th grade Modern World History Class.
The idea of teaching as a creative act may seem odd at first glance. Art, music and poetry are all obvious forms of creativity. Scholarship is another form of creativity. While I was working on my still unfinished PhD, I reconstructed past worlds and revived dead men. The best historians are a miraculous combination of the scientist and the poet.
And then I gave up my scholarly creativity to teach high school in Manhattan. My colleagues thought I was insane. I was, in their eyes, an apostate who was fading into obscurity and mediocrity.
What does a teacher create?
The obvious answer is that a teacher creates students. A teacher shapes his students and changes their lives forever. That is also obviously the wrong answer. Students come to class with a whole set of ideas and notions that are completely unknown to me. I may teach them, but that does not mean that my students receive what I teach them in the way that I intended.
So does a teacher create? Not in the way that is traditionally associated with creativity. I cannot perform a composition on the piano or recite my latest poem. My “creations” are autonomous beings with a will of their own. They are not reflections of my creative genius. A sculptor, by contrast, does what he will with the marble. If his creation does not please him, the statue is no more.
It is otherwise with teaching. A teacher cannot merely discard a student’s personality and start from nothing (at least good ones don’t.) I do not work with inanimate objects.
Good teaching involves allowing a human being to create – it allows others to realize their humanity. Teachers open the gates to other ideas, other times, other thoughts. It is the student who chooses to enter. And while we may push or encourage them to walk in, they are their own masters. When they enter those gates, they may look back fondly at us, but they are gone and no longer ours. Teaching is a tragic combination of loss and gain.
My students are not my poems or statues. I am proud of them, not because they are my own, but because they are not my own. They are living, breathing beings that take what I give them and make more of it. They allow me to connect with something beyond myself in a way that other forms of expression and communication do not. Teaching is, in the end, an act of creative giving.