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© The Winnetka Alliance for Early Childhood - Reprinted Early Childhood Winter 1993


By Bill Ayers, Ph.D.

What is teaching? Anyone who has practiced it can attest to the fact that teaching is more than the life of the mind, more than the calm, contemplative pursuit of truth, more, surely, than the steady road to progress. We know that teaching is excruciatingly complex, idiosyncratic, back-breaking, mind-boggling, exhausting, wrenching. Teaching at its best can be an act of hope and love—love for persons, love for life and hope for a world that could be, but is not yet.

This essential, central truth of teaching is often overlooked, usually missed by teachers themselves, almost always by the larger public. My life partner is a lawyer, and for years, I have found myself, a bit incongruously, at lawyer parties. The casual chit-chat usually follows a familiar rhythm:

Lawyer: "What do you do?"

Me: "I teach kindergarten."

Lawyer (invariably moving on with a patronizing, pitying look): "Oh. That must be interesting."

After a while, I tired of the whole predictable script, and developed what I thought was a snappier response. The dialogue now went like this:

Lawyer: "What do you do?"

Me: "I teach kindergarten. It’s the most intellectually demanding thing I’ve ever done."

This always causes a head-snap as the lawyer tries to reconcile three words: teach, kindergarten, intellectual. But the effect is short-lived.

Lawyer (recomposing the pitying look): "That must be very, very interesting."

Reaching for an even grander rejoinder, I try this:Lawyer: "What do you do?"

Me: "I teach kindergarten, the most intellectually demanding thing I’ve ever done, and if you are ever bored with making six figures and want to do something useful, making a positive difference in children’s lives, you ought to think of a career change. Join me."

I seldom get that far, rarely peak enough interest for another round. The lawyer moves on, the world turns, the words crash to the floor, and I am left feeling a bit romantic, reprimanded, adrift in an indifferent world with my pathetic little dreams of teaching. So, in what way is teaching intellectual work? How is teaching an ethical enterprise?

A primary challenge to teachers is to see each student as a three-dimensional creature—a person much like themselves—with hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, and capacities; with a body and a mind and a heart and a spirit; with experience, history, a past, a pathway, a future. This knotty, complicated challenge requires patience, curiosity, wonder, awe, humility. It demands sustained focus, intelligent judgment,

inquiry and investigation. It requires wide-awakeness since every judgment is contingent, every view partial, every conclusion tentative. The student is dynamic, alive, in-motion. Nothing is settled once and for all. No view is all views and no perspective every perspective. The student grows and changes—yesterday’s need is forgotten, today’s claim is all-encompassing and brand new. This, then, is an intellectual task of serious and huge proportion.

Another basic challenge to teachers is to stay wide-awake to the world, to the concentric circles of context in which we live and work. Teachers must know and care about some aspect of our shared life—our calling, after all, is to shepherd and enable the callings of others. Teachers, then, invite students to become somehow more capable, more thoughtful and powerful in their choices, more engaged in a culture and a civilization. How do we warrant that invitation? How do we understand this culture and civilization?

Teachers choose—they choose how to see the world, what to embrace and what to reject, whether to support or resist this or that directive. As teachers choose, the ethical emerges. Teachers are the midwives of hope or the purveyors of determinism and despair. Teaching becomes ethical practice when it is guided by an unshakable commitment to helping human beings reach the full measure of their humanity, and a willingness to reach toward a future fit for all—a place of peace and justice.

Teaching as an ethical enterprise goes beyond presenting what already is; it is teaching toward what ought to be. It is walking with the mothers of children, carrying the sound of the sea, exploring the outer dimensions of love. It is more than moral structures and guidelines; it includes an exposure to and understanding of material realities—advantages and disadvantages, privileges and oppressions—as well. Teaching of this kind might stir people to come together as vivid, thoughtful, and, yes, outraged. Students and teachers, then, might find themselves dissatisfied with what had only yesterday seemed the natural order of things. At this point, when consciousness links to conduct and upheaval is in the air, teaching becomes a call to freedom.

The fundamental message of the teacher is this: You can change your life. Whoever you are, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done, the teacher invites you to a second chance, another round, perhaps a different conclusion. The teacher posits possibility, openness, and alternative; the teacher points to what could be, but is not yet. The teachers beckons you to change your path, and so the teacher’s basic rule is to reach.

To teach consciously for justice and ethical action is teaching that arouses students, engages them in a quest to identify obstacles to their full humanity and the life chances of others, to their freedom, and then to drive, to move against those obstacles. And so the fundamental message of the teacher for ethical action is: You must change the world.