The “It” Factor

The Wisdom in the Room: A Teacher’s Guide, from which the following is excerpted, is now available as an ebook here.

A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

One of my secret vices is poring over fashion magazines in airplanes and in dentist’s waiting rooms. I rarely fork out the money for a subscription to Vogue, but enjoy the crazily impossible fashions on the gaunt models and the gossip about celebrities. Some years ago, when indulging in one of these momentary mental breaks, a short article in Vogue caught my eye. It was a column called the “It” girl. Various actresses capture the page every month in the fleeting dazzle of celebrity talk. In this issue, Gwyneth Paltrow had earned that month’s title. The author explained that the “It” factor she possessed was indefinable, a quality that gave a woman glamour, power, and pizzazz. It wasn’t wealth, beauty or intelligence. Many other women of the season had just as expensive a designer, as many credentials, as much opportunity. But Gwyneth had “It.”
In teaching too, there is an indefinable it that makes a teacher successful. I have learned with some sadness, that education programs, that good intentions, that hard work, are not enough to give a person success in the classroom. It can’t be whittled down to timing, good manners, subject mastery, humor, or even wisdom. I have seen many of the wisest of souls fail miserably when faced with a group of teenagers. It’s not even honesty or courage. There is something innate that a successful teacher brings to a classroom that combines many of the qualities I’ve just listed, that can’t quite be defined. But after many years of working in schools with different kinds of teachers, I do believe that there is an essential quality that the most successful teachers possess.
The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote in his book, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a series of guidelines for the simplest of human actions: washing, bathing, getting up in the morning. For each of these daily actions, he has a different prayer. When greeting someone, Thich Nhat Hanh advises his followers to silently think of the following words: A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.
A true teacher soundlessly, mindfully, imperceptibly, carries some form of Thich Nhat Hanh’s greeting in their daily work. Throughout the hundreds of interactions that occur with students, colleagues and parents throughout the day, this teacher offers genuine respect to all.
As human beings, we all participate in the same mysterious and unfathomable process of living and dying. While we are alive on this earth, each of us participates in this mystery at different times, stages, nationalities and levels of material comfort. But the essentials make us equals. We are all born into this world, and we will all depart from it one day, no matter what defines us in the meantime. Whatever else happens in the classroom, this is the core, the love of others, the respect for all living beings, the celebration of the eternal mystery of each unique identity. A teacher who genuinely practices respect for others will receive it in return.
Audrey Hepburn once advised, “The most important thing you put on in the morning is your expression.” For a teacher, this initial, internal attitude of embracing the fellowship of learning with our students as equals, rather than as “superiors,” is the first principle of teaching.
I am not saying this is easy to maintain. When faced with the stress of finding you’ve been locked out of your classroom, when students are too hungry to concentrate right before the lunch bell rings, when a teacher feels unfairly pelted by a student’s “attitude,” it is easy to forget our fundamental kinship with our students. I have often been reminded of the limitations of my patience, the small failures of catty remarks, the reactive comment one makes when a colleague puts you on the defensive. We are all human, and maintaining the Gandhi perspective is obviously a pinnacle of achievement only rarely achieved.
But a true teacher tries. A teacher falls back again and again into the belief in others, and vows to create a democracy of students where everyone has an equal chance to be more fully realized as a human being each day that goes by.
A human being is a part of a whole, called by us “universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of …his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
– Albert Einstein

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