On the subject of teaching, the cynics of the world are sometimes quoted as saying, “Those who don’t know how to do, teach.”
That irony of that dichotomous reality is ably captured in the movie Mr. Holland’s Opus, in which Richard Dreyfuss plays a music teacher caught in the vise of budget cuts late in his career. His situation is compounded by the irony that his buddy at the school is a PE teacher whose programs will remain intact.
The backstory is that while teaching is his profession, it is not Mr. Holland’s deepest passion. His main goal in life is to compose great music of his own. The “Opus” takes all his career to complete because his teaching obligations, and life itself, keep getting in the way. The work he ultimately produces is a symphonic piece combining classical, marching band and rock music. It all ends with a triumphal crescendo, an exclamation point of musical urgency and relief.
The movie ends with a scene in which Mr. Holland is invited to conduct his own music in a concert secretly arranged by his many supporters and former students. These include the Governor of the state, who credits her success in life to the methods by which Mr. Holland taught her perseverance through music training. The point is that Mr. Holland’s Opus was not just a piece of music. It was the many lives he affected in positive ways during all his years of teaching. That was the real symphony he created, a great work composed of many parts.
So the cynical saying that teachers teach because they can’t “do” is an outrageous and insulting lie.
I’ve been told many times that I should have been a teacher. It suits my nature. I love sharing ideas and helping other people succeed. The ironic truth is that those qualities are not necessarily appreciated in the corporate world, where competition for recognition and claiming ownership of ideas, especially moneymaking ideas, are more highly valued traits.
Perhaps teaching runs in my blood. My mother was a teacher for decades. My eldest brother taught for 30 years. My late wife taught special education and then preschool. As a result of these associations and community connections, I’ve been in many classrooms over the years. Most recently, I’ve been a mentor and presenter for the INCubator business program at our local high school.
It’s fun working with those kids. It is also instructional to share in the pressures that students face these days in and out of the classroom.
I’ve signed up to do substitute teaching and help out our local school districts. School teachers are dealing with the effects of the pandemic in many ways, so my assignments are diverse. My first day was a daylong schedule of physical education classes. It’s not your traditional gym class these days. The kids choose options such as Walking Gym, Four-Square or basketball.
As I was monitoring one of the Four-Square sessions I noticed that a shy boy wound up as the “fourth” with a group of three girls. He wasn’t too keen on that situation, and quietly muttered to me, hoping to get out of the group, “I don’t really know the rules.” I stepped into the square with him explained strategy, then looked at all three girls and said, “Help him out, okay?” Then I turned to him and said, “It’s all good. They’re just people…with longer hair.” He gave a quick smile and nod. From there, he relaxed and got into the game. It was one of the more productive games among the six or seven going on in the gymn.
Many of us recall moments like that in which teachers helped us break through insecurities, fears, and misgivings. Some were tough influences when we needed a kick in the butt. Others were gentle guides when we needed encouragement. It takes a village.
There are also unintentional teaching moments that happen along the way. When my 8th-grade gym teacher sentenced me to run the whole hour when I refused to play badminton, he had no way of knowing that his “punishment” would turn into a lifelong love of mine. I felt so alive running for a full hour. Probably it was the first time in life when I ran the anxiety right out of my system. Those two weeks of “punishment” helped make me into a runner for life.
Probably if I had become a teacher long ago I’d now be retired. That might be nice, but we each must run the race set out before us. We can’t change the course of our past. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run a new course if we so choose, and forge ahead.
I like to teach. I’m doing it in all phases of my life these days. Our Opus is what we make it. No one can write it for us. Nor should they. Life is one big classroom. Let’s learn together. Along with a will to teach, it is great when people adopt an attitude of lifelong learning.
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