Teach & Serve II, No. 24 – My Father Didn’t Like School

Teach & Serve II, No. 24 – My Father Didn’t Like School

January 18, 2017

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He should have written a book about education. If he had, it would been titled Lessons about Teaching from a Guy Who Didn’t Like School.

A version of this post originally appeared in Teach & Serve, Vol 1

I have come to understand a very human tendency to idealize  people who are gone from our lives. We are often nostalgic for those we’ve lost to death. When those we love pass from our lives, we have a tendency to romanticize them – who they were, what they stood for and what they said.

Though I try to guard against this temptation when I think of my father, I am sure that a bit of idealization sneaks in when I write about him. How could it not? I loved him.

Dad, if you asked him to comment, would have said terrible things about school. He may have even said terrible things about teachers. No, strike “may have.” Dad did say terrible things about his schooling, about some of his teachers, about education overall and those things may even have been true.

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Dad’s High School Graduation Photo

Dad attended the same Jesuit high school I did and he told great stories about having gone there, including priests throwing students, desk-and-all, through closed classroom doors, pitching in high school baseball games after having had a beer or two behind the dugout and the undated, signed notes my grandmother would give him of the “Please excuse Mickey from class…” and a number of other anecdotes equally entertaining and hard to believe.

Dad could tell stories.

Dad could also give advice, when asked, so, like a typical son I never really asked him his advice about teaching when I entered the profession. Dad was not a teacher, did not seem to have adored his educational life and it never occurred to me to ask him what he actually thought about education.

Looking back on who he was and how he lived and, granted, romanticizing and idealizing him a bit, I think I can discern what he may have told me had I asked him.

Dad never took himself too seriously.

Seriously.

Though he was involved in a serious profession and found himself, in his work as a deacon in the Catholic Church, dealing with people in challenging times of life, he never let the moments get the best of him. He also never let himself think he was any better than anyone else. I remember him telling the story of when, during a baptism he was performing, he continually referred to the child – let’s call the baby “Chris” – as a boy when, in fact, she was a girl. “It’s a girl, dummy!” the baby’s grandmother finally corrected him during the ceremony. Dad smiled and laughed. He apologized and went on with the baptism. Dad loved to tell that story.

Teachers and administrators need a healthy dose of self-deprecation. If we take ourselves too seriously, the work can become burdensome. We are public figures whose mistakes are going to be critiqued and scrutinized. If educators live and die with every challenging moment, the work can take a deeper emotional toll. Educators are well served by stepping back and smiling at themselves. Often.

Dad was very decisive. There may have been a lot of internal debate going on with my father and, surely, he and my mom talked about big decisions in their lives before they made them, but, professionally and personally, Dad struck me as very decisive and, once he had made a decision, he did not spend too much time looking back.

Educators are called upon to make decisions minute-by-minute. While not all of these decisions are filled with import, many need to be made with confidence. This does not necessarily imply that decisions must all be made quickly, but, once decisions are made, dwelling on and second guessing them as a matter of course can be very draining.

Dad had a great sense of humor. He could make fun of almost anything and could be highly irreverent. I have too many examples of this to name, but, trust me, Dad was very, very funny. It was one of his defining traits.

Teachers and administrators who cannot laugh and who do not have a sense of humor can certainly do the job. They can do it at a high level, even. But I have found that those who do not have a sense of humor simply do not enjoy the work as much as those who do. If you are not going to enjoy being in a school, the other rewards of the vocation may not be enough for you.

Dad connected with people. When Dad died, I spoke in the eulogy about his “guys.” Dad had many, many “guys,” people whose lives and his had intertwined over the course of his work with the Church and simply because of the man he was. There was a great number of people who called Dad “friend” and a lot more whose lives had been touched by him and, surely, who had touched his life in turn.

Much like not having a well-developed sense of humor, it is possible for educators – teachers and administrators – to do the work without connecting with students and with parents and with colleagues. It is possible to do the work. I am just not sure how well the work is done by people who do not enjoy connecting with others. Actually, I am pretty sure that those people do not do the work nearly as well. Teachers and administrators must connect. It is part of the job description.

Dad had a terrific sense of justice. I suppose having a strong sense of justice was part of Dad’s job description as a deacon. He could sense an imbalance of power or a bad situation readily and reacted strongly to these types of scenarios. He was motivated by those who had been abused by any system, was inspired by David vs. Goliath stories, and he championed those who had less. He never stopped fighting in this area. He also, from the pulpit, did not shy away from talking about issues of justice, even when such homilies made people uncomfortable.

Educators are called to not only be fair and just, they are called to highlight injustice around them. They are called to act in a just manner and to point out to developing young minds the injustice that exists in the world. Further, they are compelled to help students understand that they can be part of changing unjust systems. If we are not about this as we teach, we are simply doing a disservice to students.

Dad was a great storyteller and loved to listen to others’ stories. I miss a lot about being able to talk with and listen to my Dad. I try to emulate much of what he was in my own life. Dad was a terrific storyteller and could command any room. He told wonderfully engaging and funny stories. He also loved to listen to others telling stories and would often ask for the same story to be told over-and-over again. He would want to hear about the same moment, the same incident, the same funny anecdote. And, when he listened, his reactions and smile and attention validated the storyteller and made that person feel very special.

Should educators not tell great stories? Beyond delivering content and inspiring skills in our students, should we not also be able to tell them great stories about our subject matter and convey or love of it? Should we not also listen to those around us at least as much as we speak to them?

My father, who professed a dislike of school and who I never heard anyone call “teacher” was one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He should have written a book about education. If he had, it would been titled Lessons about Teaching from a Guy Who Didn’t Like School.

I would have bought that book.