What’s in a name? Well, everything if you think about it.
We live in an age of nomenclature, where outlet, purpose, and utility are embedded within a title. Names have become “Googleized” so that we can know exactly the origin and intention of each entity. Some names are inherently daunting (the gum disease gingivitis) and some are appropriately clever (truthiness). Even our own names can be indicative of our origin or future course. In his bestseller Freakenomics, economist Steven Levitt examines the correlation between names and future income levels. And while this social experiment might seem kicky at best, it makes sense, for there’s a lot invested in a name because it really is one of the first, immediate factors for external judgment.
This ultimately begs the question that I’m sure you’re all wondering about at this point: Why did we name this blog The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching? Is teaching unbearable? Is it light? We realize that the name—upon initial glance—seems slightly disheartening and that a certain amount of explanation is both warranted and necessary.
In his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Czech author Milan Kundera addresses the frustration of human beings with the ethereal nature of the universe with the concept of lightness. This lightness derives from our own human existence, which is not circular but linear. Life is full of questions: Should I take the corporate job or the nonprofit position? Is she the one for me? Should I order the chicken or the beef? These are all questions that arise because we are uncertain of the infinite possibilities of the world. Given a million opportunities to try alternative options, we would inevitably arrive at a point where we would be comfortable with the Lehman Brothers position, the brunette who crinkles her nose when she laughs, and the chicken satay.
But we do not live in such circumstances, and because of this, human beings cannot truly understand their decisions for they have no frame of reference to base their questions on. That’s Kundera’s point: To err is to be human; therefore our existence should not be weighed down by burdens of foresight and remorse.
In a sense, this lightness is best embodied in teaching, the most human of professions. Ultimately, our jobs in the classroom involve the nurturing and encouragement of human beings. There is not a greater connection in our society—aside from family—than that between teacher and student, which Confucius proclaimed as one of the five societal relationships. As teachers within the Teach for America program, we realize the significance of this connection. Many of us joined this program because we understand the human element involved with education and classrooms. However, after a year of teaching, many of us now understand the human element of teachers as well. While we strive for perfection in our classrooms and with our students, we consistently come home daily with stories of bumps in the road. Granted, nobody said this was going to be a smooth ride, but Kundera’s point is often painfully reinforced. If to err is to be human, then to err constantly is to be a teacher.
And through the thick and thin of a year teaching in inner-city New York schools, many of us have accepted the mistakes, kerfuffles, and blunders. This isn’t endemic of first year teachers, although the symptoms are often more pronounced within their ranks. It’s a byproduct of the very humanity we share with our own students, that we are partners in the learning process as well. And while we teach, we also learn about the world, and ourselves as well. Therein lays the beauty of this profession: that the classroom works both ways, and we ultimately leave school each day like our students, a little wiser than before.
So we wake up each day, get dressed, pack our bags, and take the appropriate train to our schools, accepting the past failures as lessons and move on. And in a sense, we accept Kundera’s idea of lightness. We don’t know how each day is going to proceed, how each student is going to turn out. Given a million chances with our students, we’d know exactly which assignments to give and which students to target for extra help. But alas, we’re human beings and are afforded no such luxury. Some might perceive this notion to be unbearable, but we recognize the temporal nature of each day as a blessing and a curse, for on one hand, we recognize each opportunity lost with mistakes, but on the other hand, there is always tomorrow, a tabula rasa, an opportunity to make anew.
This blog is intended to reflect this journey through the eyes of the teachers who experience it daily. These voices reflect the good and the bad, the frustration and the elation of teaching in underfunded schools. But they also reflect our lives outside of the classroom which often percolate into our teaching lives, whether intentional or not. And while we are now part of a seemingly mechanical educational system, we cannot be defined as kegs in a greater device. Our lives might be light, but they are also complex. Our own humanity extends to our interests, backgrounds, and passions and they will be addressed within this space as well. And while we have a staff of writers, readers are encouraged to submit pieces or stories as well. This is not our voice, but our voice, and it’s ever-changing.
On behalf of the editorial staff, I would like to welcome you to The Unbearable Lightness of Teaching. We eagerly enter this new school year and the uncertainty that comes with new beginnings. Uncertainty inevitably begets questions, but this is hardly a source of answers. Given the circumstances, this is a space for reflection, not remedies. That’s all we can ask for in a world full of lightness, as strangely oxymoronic as that sounds.