A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 9, 2014
James 3:1 GNT
Henry David Thoreau is remembered as one of America’s most iconic figures. He is famous as an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist and naturalist. His book Walden, or Life in the Woods, is an American classic. But it is hard to make a living as a naturalist. Most early naturalists like Thoreau were able to support themselves by writing and publishing natural history articles and essays for various nature magazines. But some sought other ways to earn a living. For a while Thoreau tried his hand at teaching school and tutoring. He had a brief tenure at the Concord, Massachusetts, elementary school, but resigned in short time after refusing to administer corporal punishment to his students. Henry and his brother John founded their own academy to teach as they saw fit, but that only lasted a few years. For another short time, Thoreau tried his hand at tutoring, but this, too, was short-lived. In Thoreau’s own words,
I have thoroughly tried school-keeping, and found that my expenses were in proportion, or rather out of proportion, to my income, for I was obliged to dress and train, not to say think and believe, accordingly, and I lost my time into the bargain. As I did not teach for the good of my fellow-men, but simply for a livelihood, this was a failure. (“Economy,” Walden)
Thoreau proved to be more adept as a philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist and Nature writer than a teacher. And so it has been with many other famous Americans over the years. Not everyone is suited to the teacher’s task.
The Apostle James contended that “not many of you should become teachers.” James’ contention was that teachers in the Church would be judged more strictly than others. From his perspective, no doubt, the eternal destiny of souls depended upon teachers rightly teaching the word of truth and leading people in the right way. And so, James’ contention was that one should deliberate long and hard before becoming a teacher in the Church.
But when we consider teaching in general—whether it be public school teachers, Sunday school teachers, or nursery school teachers—there are other reasons that not everyone should become a teacher. Not everyone is cut out to be a teacher. Not everyone has the skills, passion, and dedication for the teacher’s tasks. I, like you probably, had teachers who should have been in another line of work. Teachers who had abrasive attitudes, little patience for dealing with children, little passion for the teaching craft. It showed in their demeanor that they did not find joy in teaching or relating to students. Maybe they were teaching because they needed a job, because teachers were in short supply, and they could fill the slot.
Back in the 1990s, when I was working on a Master’s degree in literature, I found out that because I already had one Master’s degree (in divinity) and 15 graduate level hours in English literature, I was qualified to teach English writing and literature on the community college level. So for a couple of years I was an adjunct instructor at Columbia State Community College. I taught English composition, American literature, and Introduction to Humanities. The money I made paid for the degree I was working on. But that was some of the hardest work and longest hours I have ever exerted in my life! I found myself spending hour upon hour grading dozens of essays and exams. And then there was the necessary preparation. And then the actual class time. All the hours added together, I doubt I made minimum wage. Any ideas I might have had about becoming a full-time professor of English writing and literature quickly vanished! So I applaud all our teachers. Teachers rarely ever are compensated for the work they do and the hours they put in. As Thoreau put it, a teacher’s expenses often are out of proportion to his income. And as Thoreau also points out, if one considers going into teaching for the sole reason of making money, she should stay away from it!
But there is more. I think it takes a special kind of person to be a successful teacher. Teaching, I am inclined to believe, requires a special passion, an inner gift, even. It takes a special kind of person to love and embrace children of all dispositions. Not everyone can embrace a child who may have ADD or ADHD, or who may be feeling homesick or ill. Not everyone can deal with a crying child or wipe a runny nose. But some people are suited for the teacher’s tasks. All of us, probably, can remember teachers from our past who were meant to be teachers.
Probably my favorite teacher of all time, and the one who exerted the most influence upon me, was my first grade teacher, Mrs. Trivett. Mrs. Trivett was a dear, grandmotherly-type of person who had also taught my dad when he was a child. So by the time I had her, she was well into her sixties. When I started to school, I was homesick for two full weeks or more. I had a bad case of Yellow Bus Fever. Every morning I got up with the tummy ache and stood crying as I waited for the bus. Mrs. Trivett would take me upon her knee, and squeeze me close, and reassure me that it would get better. About 9:30 in the morning, we would have recess, a time when we could buy a carton of milk for 3 cents and eat a snack we had brought from home. A few of the children came from very impoverished families and didn’t have anything to bring. Often Mrs. Trivett would bring cookies and crackers from home to share with the children who had none. Mrs. Trivett loved teaching, especially reading. Mrs. Trivett was meant to be a first-grade teacher, something she did into her 70s when she was forced to retire.
I think of that statement by William Ellery Channing: “There is no office higher than that of a teacher of youth, for there is nothing on earth so precious as the mind, soul, character of the child.”
One of my favorite books is the little volume by Parker Palmer titled Let Your Life Speak.1 Parker tells of how in the middle of graduate school he discovered that he loved teaching. He states, “I could have done no other: teaching, I was coming to understand, is my native way of being in the world” (21). But instead of going into teaching, he took a job in Washington, D.C. as a community organizer. Sometime later, he took a year-long sabbatical from that job, spending it at Pendle Hill, a Quaker retreat center outside of Philadelphia. His plan was to stay one year then go back to his job in Washington, D.C. But he was invited to stay at Pendle Hill and become Dean of Studies. So for the next decade he remained at Pendle Hill, continuing to “experiment with alternative models of education.” Palmer is well-known for several books he has written on theories of education. Family and friends kept asking him why he was wasting his Ph.D. teaching at a small retreat center.
While at Pendle Hill, Palmer was offered the opportunity to become the president of a small educational institution. He knew it would be a much more prestigious position than the one he currently held. His picture would be in the newspaper regularly. Yet, Palmer found this career change to be quite vexing. The more he thought of being in that position the more his stomach was tied in knots. Parker, a Quaker himself, called some of his colleagues together in a Quaker clearness committee to help him make a decision. A clearness committee gathers in a circle around one who needs help making a decision and spends about three hours asking questions that help one clarify a decision he is trying to make. Parker relates how one member asked him what he would like most about being president of the educational institution that was calling him. Parker responded by giving several answers of what he would not like about leaving his teaching position at Pendle Hill. The poser of the question gently reminded him, “I asked what you would most like?” Palmer continued to state what he would not like about leaving his current position and not like about the new position. Finally when pressed he said, “I guess what I’d like most is getting my picture in the paper with the word president under it” (46). There was a long silence. The one who had posed the question finally returned with another question, “Parker, can you think of an easier way to get your picture in the paper?” (46). Parker realized that his desire to be president had more to do with his ego than what he should be doing with his life. He realized his calling was to be a teacher. So he called the educational institution and withdrew his name and has been teaching ever since.
While not everyone should consider becoming a teacher, and some people simply are not meant to be teachers, some people definitely are. The conclusion of the matter for me is teaching is a calling. A special calling. So today, may we celebrate the teachers among us, whether they be public school teachers, Sunday school teachers, or nursery school teachers. Teaching is not an easy job. It requires long hours, hard work, special skills, much patience, and I would reemphasize a special calling. And the financial rewards are far too lenient. Yes, we celebrate and express our gratitude for those among us who feel and answer the teaching call. Amen.
1Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2000.