The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Teacher

Download the book of which this is the opening essay.

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”

It is that time of year, time to say good bye. Time to close books and put away pencils and go on our way towards that “next thing”. End of semester, the bell rings one long, loud time. People come and go like ghosts, it is over. We await the “new” and September when there is rebirth and the cycle starts again.

And that’s how school is.

I’ve never gotten used to it. This saying good – bye. It is like a heavy mist that weighs me down all summer, all time apart. Where do the people go that were SUCH a part of my life? Why this hither and yonder and higher and lighter? Where do they all go? And why must I partake in it? Who clangs the bell that makes all this happen and keeps the circle spinning ’round? Who wiped away my sky?

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, Vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

It is even worse for adventurous EFL teachers. We flit from one school, from one country to the next. We get to know students and the community but always remain on the outside because there will always be a time to move on…. we are always saying good-bye, everything shifts underneath us and there is no “terra firma”.

When I finished my second practice teaching session during Teacher’s College, my mentor teacher – Jim McClacherty at the end of the session took me for a walk on the pitch outside. He had a somber air to him and I though it was just because he felt burdened by some personal problem. He scratched at his beard as was his habit and kept chit-chatting as we walked on the field where he had once coached me as a teenager. Now here I was and he was trying to come up with some “wisdom”. Finally, he stopped and looked me in the eye. He said, “David, you are a teacher now. And there is some secret you have to know. There is a lot of pain in teaching. The hardest part of teaching, the most pain, is in saying “good-bye”. You are constantly saying good-bye to so many people/students that you gave your heart to. Your heart is broke a thousand times by this treadmill of human potential. It is the most painful thing, always saying good-bye. Nobody ever stays. ”

“And therein lies the whole of man’s plight. Human time does not turnin a circle; it runs ahead in a straight line. That is why man cannot be happy: happiness is the longing for repetition.”

I’ve so often thought of Jim throughout my years. The best teacher I had – the best because he was courageous enough to deal with the “heavy” stuff, the stuff that is seldom looked at but always there. And I feel that terribly this year, this semester. A lightness that comes from being “nowhere” and having so many teachers and students just pass through my life, like my life were some kind of magical treadmill. Where does the center hold? What matters? Do we just have to keep playing our part and are we mere players on the stage of life?

When Tereza came back from the dance floor with the young man, the chairman asked her to dance, and finally Tomas has a turn with her, too.

“Tomas”, she said to him out on the floor, “everything bad that’s
happened in your life is my fault. It’s my fault you ended up here, as
low as you could possibly go.”

“Low? What are you talking about?”

“If we has stayed in Zurich, you’d still be a surgeon.”

“And you’d be a photographer.”

“That’s a silly comparison to make,” said Tereza, “Your work meant everything to you; I don’t care what I do, I can do anything, I haven’t lost a thing; you’ve lost everything.”

“Haven’t you notice I’ve been happy here, Tereza?” Tomas said.

“Surgery was your mission,” she said.

“Missions are stupid, Tereza. I have no mission, No one has. And it’s a terrific relief to realize you’re free, free of all missions.”

I have been searching my whole life for “lightness” and I’ve traveled the world. Yet, I find within me, a need, a sorrow, a melancholy that aches for “weight” and community/people and things that stay, endure and matter. What I’d give to not go through “a course” with its 15 weeks and then the repartee. It is like death itself! What I’d give to remember all the thousands (I’d even venture 10s of thousands) of teachers I’ve encountered online or off – what I’d give to have them in my life and as a whole and not some light breeze. I ask again, where does the center hold?

“The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.”

But maybe I’m wrong. I do know I still have a lot to learn. Something has pulled me into teaching and it gives me so much. I do enjoy the lightness too. I can disappear. I have no demands placed upon me, to a long term degree. I can be who I am and if not accepted, off to the next job, the next teaching position. I am the captain of my own ship.

Yet my ship has no rudder and the crew come and go with each new port. I’ve confused them all and all I remember are the faces. The destination? There is none, just constant harbors to get new supplies and rejuvenate – that is the teacher’s lot.

“We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.”

It is the end of the semester, so many students coming to my office and then going…..going off to god knows where. Lost in this world’s busyness. Lost to my ship, a fleeting memory of time and space. Lightness. Unbearable lightness. And one day I’ll meet a student on some street with no name and I will not know their name — only their face. I have to take faith that is enough. Such is the lot and the unbearable lightness of being a teacher.

“There is no means of testing which decision is better, because there is no basis for comparison. We live everything as it comes, without warning, like an actor going on cold. And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself? That is why life is always like a sketch. No, “sketch” is not quite a word, because a sketch is an outline of something, the groundwork for a picture, whereas the sketchthat is our life is a sketch for nothing, an outline with no picture.”

What to do? I live, I teach, I do my best. There is an ideal I long for but I seem incapable of finding it. Teaching seems contradictory to it. I want things to stay but nothing stays, life, my life, just keeps marching forward. I look underfoot but see no treadmill. Yet, everything keeps moving despite my protests. The moment won’t last nor linger.

“There is no perfection only life”
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Teacher trainer, technology specialist, educational thinker...creator of EFL Classroom 2.0, a social networking site for thousands of EFL / ESL teachers and students around the world.

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8 Responses

  1. A really moving post David and a great book. I’ve had the same feeling so often on the last day of classes, looking out the window of a plane or bus, or saying good-bye to a new friend.

    The lightness comes with its own form of heaviness I think.

  2. ddeubel says:

    Yes, I have to revisit the book this summer. When in the CR – I devoured literature. Klima and Hrabal are two more Czech authors I revere (Kundera after “Zert” or “the joke” became much more French….

    Yes, your statement about sums it up. Lightness comes with heaviness. There is the tao in each part – as a Taoist might suggest. Ying/Yang are not separate but different aspects.

    But it is a hard thing, this constant saying good bye. Our profession is ephemeral…

  3. Suzanne says:

    Saying goodbye at the end of the term really is hard. No matter what you go through in a year or a term, having it end is hard. It’s scary to know you’ll start over with new students too.

  4. yes vey hard to say goodbye, knowing you’ll have to start everything over and over every year. Leaving a port only to arrive at a new one with new passengers and crew on your never-ending-sailing ship. And the problem is that we are getting OLD and the sailing is getting more and more ADVENTUROUS.

  5. ddeubel says:

    Rhalmi – So true! Time cannot ever be beaten, only endured…. that’s what the poets tell us.

  6. In a word – beautiful.

  7. Jim McClacherty says:

    Hi David,
    I just stumbled across your site. Thank you for the remembrance, it made my day. I fondly remember your name,face your skills and parts of your story. It was a great pleasure to read your post and remember our past, especially soccer and your journeys. God bless you.
    Jim McClacherty

  8. David Deubelbeiss says:

    Hi Jim! Dave Gutscher just spent a solid month with me here in Guatemala. We reconnected after 32 years without a word. We journeyed all over and shared many stories of our times together. Dave is still Dave, full of enthusiasm and still kicking the ball around any chance he gets. I’ve been lucky to have mentors like you and all the good I’ve done in education comes from that soil – thanks!

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