I entered public school instruction in 1997. For five years thereafter I taught in both California and Colorado. When I began my career I was boiling with determination to change public schooling. My own experiences as a public school student had been difficult to say the least and there was certainly a streak of bitterness in my desire to change the system. I optimistic enough that I could affect great change in public schools simply by being there and doing things differently. In 2002 I began teaching middle school, the year that NCLB went into effect. Over the ensuing years my ability to teach freely and creatively became increasingly restrained, culminating in my school’s adoption of a mandated curriculum in 2006. From this point forward I fought deep discouragement each year, feeling that I was unable to serve my students effectively. I felt trapped and unable to do anything but be part of the machine, and I wondered how could I have been so naïve. My hope of bringing change from within my field faded.
And my problem was one of change from within, but not in the way I’d suspected. No Child Left Behind, and the district curriculum were peripheral antagonisms compared the real battle going on in my heart, a battle against self-limitation. Before entering teaching, I had worked at a variety of jobs, in retail, manufacturing, and as a graphics worker. In all of those roles I had also felt somewhat trapped, saying to myself: This is not my true profession. I saw the attainment of a teaching license as the doorway to the real life for which I was preparing. Once I started teaching, I imagined that I would be happy and satisfied as a matter of course, and that I would perform my work with a confidence and drive lacking in previous jobs.
This is where things get sticky, because this largely turned out to be true. I was fulfilling my calling, of that I had not doubt. Still, at barely conscious level, I was holding back and it showed in the restrictions I placed on myself in the face of the obstacles thrown at me by my working conditions. Despite my passion for teaching, I found it difficult to fully commit myself to the lives of my students. I could be warmly encouraging to a child, foster his or her growth all year, and yet something was still missing. What it was, I could not ascertain. One’s students are always a mirror, and not surprisingly, they reflected back their own inability to go the distance in their lives. That one kid whom I had devoted so much extra time and care outside the classroom, still tended to slip into old patterns and not finish the year well. This was deeply troubling to me. I had to do the internal work to get to bottom of this dilemma, for as a practicing Nichiren Buddhist, I know that what I see around me, and in others, has a direct correlation to how I see myself. After much struggle, I realized that as an engaged, caring teacher, I was still only willing to go 90% of the distance for my students; the reason being that I was only willing to go that far for myself. I had always kept myself within a carefully crafted frame of what I believed was ultimately possible for myself. And if this is how I felt about myself, how could it not translate to my kids?
I do not share this self-criticism as a result of guilt, nor as an act of penance. I relate this personal struggle to illustrate that successful teaching is not so much a matter of how a teacher works with students, as it is the teacher’s internal orientation in this profoundly human work. I wanted to show young people how they can change their lives with their own inherent power (a foundational concept of Soka Education). But how could I do so if I was reluctant to do the same myself? This was my greatest impediment as an educator. And furthermore, I realize that I would have experienced this same stultification even without the constraints of NCLB. I had tried to change how I felt about my life by changing the daily environment in which I took action. Instead, it was changing my heart that mattered in the course of crafting a greater happiness. Thinking in terms of the growth of cherry trees, Daisaku Ikeda writes:
The roots are especially important. One expert on trees says that the spread of the crown of a cherry tree is mirrored almost exactly by the spread of its roots below ground. If we water the tree only around the base of the trunk, the tree will become “lazy” and not bother to spread its roots far in search of water (“Teachers of My Childhood”, Soka Education, p. 139).
Applying this analogy to myself, I see the crown of the cherry tree as my students, and the roots as myself. Because my growth was uneven, this unevenness was reflected in them. Teaching is about being fully open to people. When I realized this, I was able to see my career with fresh eyes. It was a shift in perspective that empowered me to approach the conditions of my work fundamentally differently, the results of which have led me to change my view of my role in education.
More to come in Part II.